Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 19th Tevet 5775, 10th January 2015
As we begin a new book of the Torah, we are introduced to the main characters. We meet Pharaoh in all his wickedness and then we meet a baby, cast like bread upon the water who is then taken in, very quickly, by no less than the daughter of Pharaoh. We follow the development of this person, called Moshe, and by the end of our parsha he is our leading character.
Somewhere in the first meeting between God and Moshe in Midian, Moshe poses questions. He asks God – Who are you? What will I say when the Israelites ask me your name? And the answer is ‘I am what I am’ or however the sentence is translated.
But Moshe asks an even more tantalizing question. It is: ‘Who am I that I should be sent to Pharaoh?’ A self-effacing question if ever there was one, showing that Moshe had no inflated ego (unlike some leaders we know today). But as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out beautifully, the question may be much deeper, and directed not to God but to Moshe himself. Who – or what – was he?
He was born to an Israelite man and woman from the tribe of Levi. Until the time he was weaned, let’s say age 6 or 7, he was raised by his mother and from that point he grew up in the king’s palace. So, from age 6 to age 20 or so he was an Egyptian prince. Then came the killing of the Egyptian beating up an Israelite, Moshe flees to Midian and there he marries, and settles down, and tends sheep for – 60 years! We don’t realize it, but read the text. Moshe was 80 when he was sent back to Egypt. 60 years were spent in Midian! So, maybe he was more Midianite than Egyptian or Israelite.
This makes the question “who am I” more complex. Not only does Moshe have a problem accepting that he is worthy, he may really not be sure where he belongs. He names his first child Gershon, because, he says, I was a foreigner (ger) in a foreign land, which means he did not feel Midianitish at the time of his child’s birth. Could he identify with the Egyptians? Well, he lived there for no more than 20 years, about a third of them, perhaps, with his biological family. So, his Egyptian identity is weak, even though he looked, dressed and spoke like an Egyptian (Yitro’s daughters report that they were saved at the well by an Egyptian man).
That leaves the Israelites. He had those first formative years, and then for 60 years or so he had no contact with the Israelites that we know of. If I were to ask some of our congregants who were born in Europe and spent more than half of their lives in America or England or Russia before making Aliya to Israel – what do you consider yourselves, I’m pretty sure the answer would probably be “a Jew,” because no matter where these people were, they had Jewish tradition and religious practice and holidays and paraphernalia to identify with. The fact that they ended up here is also a good indication that they felt Jewish. But in those days, before the Torah was given, there was no highly developed Jewish life that we know about, except perhaps oral stories (the midrash may disagree but that is another matter). So with Moshe, we may have a man without a country, a man with a true identity problem.
One commentary I read notes that the verb “vayarr” “and he saw” appears dozens of times in the parsha. It appears three times in two sentences when Moshe goes out to his people and sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite – and he sees that no one is around. In Midian he sees a burning bush and goes over to look more closely. God sees that he comes over. Etc. Etc. Etc. This simple verb appears to serve as a connecting link, in this parsha, between events.
Moshe sees what was happening in the street. However, the important thing is not that he sees, but that he does something about it. When Moshe was in Egypt, he sees means that he took an interest in what was happening to what he considered to be his people. This indicates that at least in those early years Moshe had no identity problem. And it may be that his self-identity remains – dormant, perhaps – during his 60 years in Midian. He certainly had no cause to announce that he was a Hebrew.
Yet he remembers. And when push comes to shove, and God forces him to undertake this very thankless task of getting Pharaoh to release his slaves, Moshe acquiesces. Not that he has a choice – he can’t be a Jonah who tries to run the other way because there’s nowhere to go. He can’t dissuade the Lord who is pushing this job on him to change his mind. And once he accepts it, he puts his whole being into a task that will keep him fully occupied for the next 40 years.
Moshe has seen, and he begins to act. His quiet life as a Midianite shepherd is ended and his difficult role as the shepherd of a decidedly ungrateful nation begins.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on the people. After all, their self-identity could not have been too clear either. They had come as welcome guests to Egypt, had contributed to its growth and prosperity (after the seven bad years), and at some time became a scapegoat. Are they free (as they were) or slaves (as they are)? Are they the descendants of powerful people with strong ties to a God the Egyptians don’t honor, or the sons and daughters of slaves? A man without an identity leading a people without a country.
That’s why it’s good to be here, in this country, surrounded by people who know who they are, and who want everyone else to be like them, even though each one, or each group, is different from the other.
Our leaders have it no easier than Moshe did.