Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 29 December 2018 / 21 Tevet 5779

Parshat Shmot

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Humility – Prerequisite of a Jewish Leader

After witnessing the wondrous sight of the burning bush, Moshe receives his first prophecy. G-d calls out to him, “Moshe, Moshe,” and Moshe responds: “Hineni! [Here I am!].” The Almighty proceeds to tell Moshe that the time has come to save the people from their suffering and affliction in Egypt, and to bring them to the Promised Land. “Now,” says G-d, “go, I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall bring My people… out of Egypt.” But this time, “heneni” is much less forthcoming. It would be seven days ofnegotiation before Moshe would agree to assume the position of leader.

Moshe’s immediate response to the directive is, Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the Children of Israel out from Egypt? Moshe in effect said, “You set for me two formidable tasks: to defeat Pharaoh and to lead Israel. But I feel that I possess not the slightest strength or aptitude for either of these tasks —Who am I that I should be assigned such a mission?”

Now, Moshe is later described as “extremely humble, more than any other man on earth.” He knew now that he possessed none of the stuff of which demagogues, leaders, generals, heroes and rulers are made. It was only natural that a man of Moshe’s humility would recoil from such a mission, even though the call came from G-d Himself. Considering his own inadequacy, he feared he would be timid and weak in Pharaoh’s presence, and fail in the mission. It was also quite natural for Moshe to doubt whether he had the imposing, overpowering strength of personality required to transform a nation of slaves into a people of G-d.

Indeed, in G-d’s response we see that Moshe may not have had these traits. Instead of reassuring him of his own ability, G-d responds, “Because I will be with you! Precisely this will be the sign for you that it is I Who have sent you.” Those traits that in Moshe’s view made him unsuited for this task are the very ones that make him most qualified to carry it out. Precisely because Moshe sensed that he lacked the capacity to accomplish this mission by human power, Moshe was the one best-suited to accomplish G-d’s mission. This very inadequacy will be the “sign” that this leader is G-d-sent to carry out a Divine mission. Without this proof, the salvation of the people of Israel would be regarded as another event in world history, explicable by human forces, and contributing to human glory.

At the end of the seven days, Moshe remains unconvinced of his ability, and begs G-d to send another man, more worthy, wise and capable. This utter lack of confidence in himself and in his ability is in itself the most vivid proof of the Divine origin of all that was done and spoken by Moshe. It is living testimony that the Torah was not given by Moshe, the charismatic leader, but rather through Moshe, the humble emissary.

§ Source: Commentary Shemot, 3:11, 4:13

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