If ever there is an iconic image from the Torah recognized by the religious and the secular world alike, it would probably be Moses and the burning bush. Throughout the Torah, God talks to His prophets, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. But in the case of the forefathers, it’s hardly such an iconic and symbolic scene. Yet, while they follow God’s commands with immediate compliance, Moses turns Him down. Five times.
Now we all recognize that the mark of humility is the person who runs from leadership. But when God Himself is telling you to take the job and your people are suffering from oppressive slavery, it’s not the time or place to humble yourself. But Moses just won’t budge.
1) Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? Am I able to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Shemos 3:11)
Why me? You’d think if God came to you, it would be enough. But there’s an interesting Midrah which says that Moses isn’t the only person who saw the burning bush. That in fact several people saw it, but continued on their way. It was only Moses who stopped to investigate. When we see problems in the world, our initial reaction is, “What am I going to do about it? I’m just one person.” And what the Torah is telling us is if you’re noticing the problem and it bothers you, maybe you’re the one to do something about it.
2)What shall I say to them? (Shemos 3:13)
Moses ruled over the Jews as a Prince of Egypt as they suffered, now God is asking him to go back and tell them to follow him? So God tells him His name then proceeds to layout everything that will happen from Moses’ meeting with the elders, to his confrontation with Pharaoh, the foretelling of the plagues, and all the way to entering the land is Israel.
3) They will not believe me… They will say ‘God did not appear to you.’ (Shemos 4:4)
At this point, you’d think it would be enough for Moses to come aboard. But he still has doubts. So God shows him how to do miracles. What’s odd about this is that in Jewish tradition, miracles aren’t considered valid indications of a prophet. If fact, the Rambam specifically says in his Mishneh Torah, “If a person … claims to be a prophet… we do not tell him: ‘Split the seas for us, revive the dead, or the like, then we will believe you.’ Instead we tell him, ‘if you are a prophet, tell us what will happen in the future.’ He makes his statements, and we wait to see whether his prophecy comes to fruition or not.” (Hichos Yesodei HaTorah Ch 10:1)
So why is God giving Moses miracles to do? God’s already told him the future. Rabbi Denbo gives following explanation: Say you’re working at a bank and someone comes in with $10,000 check to cash. They’ve got all identification, the account numbers, their thumb print matches, etc. It all looks good. You still don’t don’t have the authority to cash the check. You need your bank manager to come over and put his signature on it for final approval. In the analogy, the Jewish people are the bank teller, Moses is the guy with the check, the credentials are the prophesy, God is the bank manager, and the miracles are the signature.
4) I am not a man of words. I am clumsy of mouth. (Shemos 4:10)
At this point Moses should be really good to go. But then he hides behind the insecurities of his poor communications skills. Some Rabbis believe he had a speech impediment (explained by a Midrash) and some believe that was metaphorical. Basically God responds with, Look Moses, I’m God. Who makes blind people blind? And I’m going to tell you what to say! From this we learn, that our success really isn’t up to us. All we can really do is make our best effort and tackle one problem at a time.
5) I beg you God, please send the one You usually send. (Shemos 4:13)
Finally Moses is out of excuses and flatly refuses. Send any other Jew in my place. Why any other Jew? Because Moses is the only one who didn’t have to endure the slavery. How can you go to a suffering people and try to console them, let alone, speak for them? How could they possibly accept a man who not only eluded slavery, but was rich off their backs and when he realized who he was, ran away and started a family living a contented lifestyle?
It’s why when you visit a grieving person sitting shiva you say nothing. You want to be there for them, but lack the experience to have the honesty of heart to console. Moses lacks that very experience. So he asks God, how could you possibly choose me for this?
How does God respond? With his brother, Aaron. He’s is the perfect candidate. Aaron can vouch for Moses, because Aaron has been there. And he’s the perfect compliment to Moses’ nature. Moses is known for the character trait emes. A person with emes up holds justice and truth at all costs. Their tools are judgment and rebuke. But when a people have been through the hell of generations of slavery, they don’t need rebuke. They need kindness, chessed. Which was Aaron’s very character trait. Moses and Aaron would be a team. Aaron would talk to the Jewish people with compassion and peace.
Because while Moses wasn’t equipped to talk to the Jewish people, he was the perfect one to talk to Pharaoh. Moses had lived in the palace, understood the thinking and lifestyle of the Egyptian monarchy, and where the Jewish people needed kindness and mercy, Pharaoh was very much deserving of the harsh words, judgment, and rebuke Moses was equipped to give.
So the take away is that if you feel moved to act but, believe you do not posses the qualities necessary to affect change, act anyway. If it is truly a worthy cause, and you are honestly concerned with solving the problem, God will send you the help you need.
This is great, Ben. Thanks for breaking down Moses’ five refusals.
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