Those of you who have been following me on Facebook know I’m writing a weekly D’var Torah for the Monday edition of the Reform Movement‘s daily email, Ten Minutes of Torah. I’m the writer for Exodus this year, so I’ll be publishing a D’var Torah each week through early March. If you don’t already subscribe, I’d encourage you to sign up for Ten Minutes of Torah – each day of the week has a different theme, and you can sign up for as many or as few days of the week as you’d like. Since I know a lot of the readers of this blog are signed up for TMT, you can read my Divrei Torah on Mondays there – but later in the week (sometimes the following week), I’ll also be reposting them here with an added bonus.
In the Ten Minutes of Torah email, each of my Divrei Torah will be followed by a “Davar Acher” – a brief reflection written by another rabbi or scholar in response to my D’var Torah, offering a different perspective or opinion. But on Shabbat evening at Beth David, I’ll be inviting a member of our community to give their own Davar Acher – and (most weeks) I’ll be publishing their words here on this blog along with mine. So these blog posts will be longer than usual, but you can just scroll down if you’ve aleady read my D’var Torah on the Ten Minutes of Torah email.
To start, here’s my D’var Torah from last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, followed by a really beautiful Davar Acher from Jessi Roemer, one of the Interim Cantors at Beth David this year.
How Humble is Too Humble?
Rabbi Beth Kalisch
When we open the Book of Exodus this week, and turn to Parashat Sh’mot, we find that the Israelites are suffering under the tyranny of ego. Pharaoh, a despot who believes himself to be more powerful than God – indeed, he believes that he is a god himself – has enslaved the Israelites in order to secure his own power.
In this context, I find it particularly fitting that the leader who emerges to help the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery is Moses, whom the Torah describes as “a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth” (Numbers 12:3). While Pharaoh’s first words in Exodus are focused on oppressing the Israelites to consolidate his own power, our introduction to Moses in this week’s Torah portion highlights Moses’ humility and his doubts about stepping into leadership. No one can accuse Moses of being a rival to Pharaoh, of leading the Jewish people for his own self-aggrandizement. When God calls to Moses at the Burning Bush and charges him with the mission of going to Pharaoh and demanding the Israelites’ freedom, Moses humbly shrugs off the mantle of leadership five times (See Exodus 3:11, 13; 4:1; 4:10; 4:13).
First, Moses is merely modest: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . ?” (Exodus 3:11) he asks God. But God assures him that God’s Presence will be with him, and so Moses need not feel intimidated. Next, Moses demeans his own standing among the Israelites and points out that he has no proof to show them that he has actually spoken with God (3:13). So God gives Moses proof: the knowledge of God’s own name, and reassures him that “they will listen to you,” (3:18). But Moses hesitates a third time: “What if they do not believe me?” (4:1). This time, God gives him physical proof in the form of a staff that becomes a snake on command, the quick healing of a skin affliction, and the promise of water turning into blood.
Still, Moses is not ready to accept. He tries a fourth time (4:10), pointing to his speech impediment or perhaps a generalized fear of public speaking, as making him a poor spokesman. When God reassures him that he is up to the task, Moses has no more excuses, but simply begs, “Please, O my lord, make someone else Your agent!” (Exodus 4:13).
Some years I read this interaction and feel inspired by Moses’ humility. This, I think, is what the world needs more of: leaders who lead only as an act of service to a greater good, not in order to feed their egos. I read it and think about how far my own humility falls short of the model that Moses sets for us. When I have stepped up to leadership, I wonder, have I always done so out of pure motives?
But this year, I’ve been thinking about humility a little differently, thanks to a midrash I read in a little-known collection that dates to the first two centuries C.E. The Rabbis who wrote this midrash imagined that far from being pleased by Moses’ humility, God must have seen it as an affront:
“They told a parable: To what is the matter alike? It is like a king who had a servant whom he loved completely. The king sought to make him his administrator… What did the king do? He took the servant by his hand, and brought him into his treasury, and showed him his silver vessels, golden vessels, fine stones and gems, and all that he possessed within his treasury. After this, he brought him outside and showed him [his] trees, gardens, parks, enclosed areas, and all that was his in the fields. Afterward, the servant closed his hand and said, ‘I am unable to be the administrator…’ The king said to him, ‘Since [you knew] that you could not be the administrator, why did you put me through all this trouble?!’ And the king was angry with him, and decreed that he should never enter his palace.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai1:4)1
This parable, the Rabbis explain, can be compared to God, who wanted Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and must have been angry when Moses, although he spent time talking with God at the Burning Bush, didn’t feel comfortable accepting the job. It was at this moment and for this sin, the midrash imagines, that God decreed the punishment for Moses that he would not enter the Land of Israel together with the rest of the people.2
It’s a strikingly vivid parable – one that inverts our expectations for the relationship between God and Moses, and challenges us to think about the proper balance of humility and ego. Moses was being called to serve, called to a sacred task, the midrash reminds us. For him to show such reluctance was not an act of humility, but of hubris. By making himself so small, he ended up making himself more important than the people that he was being called to serve.
I think the most challenging part of the midrash is the king’s – and hence God’s – frustration at “all this trouble” that the king has gone through, only to have the servant turn down the opportunity to serve. What a powerful image: God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world.
And so this year, as I read the conversation at the Burning Bush, I wonder how deeply I have responded to God’s call. What is the “trouble” that God has gone to in order to prepare me to be the kind of leader that my community, my congregation, and my family need? What are the gifts I have received that will be squandered if I don’t have enough regard for them to put them to use? Like Moses, may we all find the courage to stop coming up with excuses to avoid the sacred work we know we need to do.
1) W. David Nelson, trans., annot., Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006), p. 4
And here is Jessi Roemer’s Davar Acher:
This week’s portion, Shemot, starts us on the winter’s walk toward Spring and Pesach with the story of our slavery in Egypt, Moses’ call to leadership, and the first part of our path to freedom.
One of the pivotal scenes in this portion is when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, and God convinces Moses to take the cause of the slaves to Pharaoh. As we remember, Moses does not accept this assignment readily; he first protests several times that he is not sufficient to the task.
In her “Reform Voices of Torah” drash this week, Rabbi Kalisch eloquently posits that it may be hubris, not humility, that initially prevents Moses from accepting the call to leadership. She interprets a midrash from Shimon Bar Yochai to suggest that lack of belief in ourselves can actually be an affront to God. “What a powerful image:,” she says, “God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world.” She asks herself, and inspires us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I not answering the call to my sacred task? Rabbi Kalisch challenges us all to recognize the sacred call in our lives and to answer it.
I agree with Rabbi Kalisch: Yes, answer the call. I want to unpack a little bit what answering the call means.
First: Recognize that there are many different types of calls and each of us has a unique contribution.
This portion headlines Moses’ slow coming to the realization that he is the only one who can confront Pharaoh on the Hebrews’ behalf. But this portion actually shows several different characters answering several different calls; each plays a unique role in this story of liberation.
For starters, Neither God nor Moses is the first savior in this story — for the whole first two chapters, Moses is a baby and God is nowhere in sight. The very first saviors, besides Yocheved, a slave woman who bravely gives birth, are the midwives Shifra and Pu’ah, who defy Pharaoh’s orders and save Moses’ life (as well as the lives of several other slave babies).
The next savior is Miriam, Moses’ sister, who cares for Moses and follows him along the river, and persuades the princess Batya to bring Moses’ own mother to the palace nurse him. Then there is Batya, who adopts Moses and raises him, and Yocheved again, who nurses him. Each of these women is answering her own sacred call, connected to but also independent of Moses. It takes a strong moral compass for a midwife to refuse a King’s order on pain of death, for a sister to insist on preserving a life that is doomed, for a princess to take into her care a baby that she knows is not only a slave, but a slave boy who could only have been kept alive in defiance of her father’s decree, and for a mother to share her child with another mother for the sake of the child. As a result of their answering their own sacred calls, all of them together – midwives, sister, and mothers – not only save baby Moses’ life, but sustain him until he is grown. Long before Moses is called to fulfill his sacred task, it is the sacred acts and the compassion of these women that get this story rolling.
So the first step is to be aware of the many different models of sacred task that are out there. Second is to become aware of your own skills, your own privilege, and your unique position to do good.
Shifra and Pu’ah don’t know they are saving the baby who will one day free a nation; they recognize that they are in a unique position to save lives, and they do. Miriam recognizes that she, unlike any of the Hebrew adults, can follow baby Moses unseen and convince Pharaoh’s daughter to bring his mother as a wet nurse. Batya knows that without her this Hebrew baby would die — she is the one person who can legitimately rescue and raise him. Yocheved is the one person best positioned to nurse him, and she does.
Moses eventually realizes how he is uniquely positioned to free the slaves, having been raised with the standing and mentality of a free man (and royalty at that), but knowing in his heart his kinship with the Hebrews. Aharon, having lived his life as a slave, cannot fill Moses’ role, but as Moses’ clear-spoken brother, he can do the speaking for Moses. Even God has a unique, but not omnipotent role: God could not have delivered the baby Moses, nursed him, or gone by Godself to demand freedom from Pharaoh. However, God’s own unique powers do position God to be the inspiration and the muscle behind Moses’ demands for justice.
Each of these characters not only has a particular skill, but recognizes how they are uniquely positioned to do good. Redemption happens when each and every character uses both their skill and their position to help.
By contrast, Ramses, who as Pharaoh is uniquely positioned to uphold the covenant between the Egyptian people and Joseph, allows his fear to override his commitment and plunges an entire people into slavery.
Third step: Recognize that you can’t do it alone. Each of the women is dependent on the others; Moses is dependent on all of them. Plus, he needs God to push and support him, he needs his brother to help him confront Pharaoh, and he later needs both his brother and his sister to help him lead the people out of Egypt. Even God, as we’ve said, requires human partners to bring about redemption. No one of these characters could have accomplished what they did alone; it is all of their actions together that result in the freeing of the slaves.
I recently came across a public letter, entitled, “To the White Parents of My Black Son’s Friends.” In it, the mother of a black child makes it clear how white allies are uniquely positioned to help protect her son from the dangerous, sometimes deadly effects of racism:
“We are doing what we can to find this bizarre balance of helping him be proud of who he is and helping him understand that not everybody is going to see him the way we see him. Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents. But here’s the thing– as much as we can try to protect him and teach him to protect himself, there may come a time when your child will be involved. As the parents of the white friend of my black son, I need you to be talking to your child about racism. I need you to be talking about the assumptions other people might make about my son. I need you to talk to your child about what they would do if they saw injustice happening.
“If they see my son being bullied or called racist names,” she says, “they need to stand with him … If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay … Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If you are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble you get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can.”
The letter calls on people who benefit from privilege in our system to a) become aware of the different situations they find themselves in where her son is vulnerable; b) understand how they may be uniquely positioned to help her son or someone else in his position; c) join her in the effort to keep her son safe and alive, because she cannot do it alone.
To me this is a perfect example of a call to sacred task: We all are, to different degrees, modern-day Shifras, Puahs, Yocheveds, Miriams and Batyas, Moseses and Aharons and Pharaohs. We don’t always know what part we are playing in the larger story of a people, or of our world; we don’t know how the story will end until it does. But what we do have are these moments when we may be called to a sacred task.
Sometimes the task takes a lifetime; sometimes it happens in a moment. Sometimes it requires sacrifice; sometimes it requires merely being aware. The trick is to prepare ourselves for them, and be present when they arise. What skills do we possess, and what positions do we hold, that will enable us to do good – in small or big ways – when these moments do arise? In this new Gregorian year, may we each be blessed with the clarity to realize the unique roles, skills, and the powers we have at our disposal to sustain life and bring about redemption.