Reluctant Heroes

by Joel Brown, January 10, 2016

It was my pleasure to be able to lead the Friday night service on January 1, 2016 while Rabbi Pollack was away, celebrating her father-in-law’s 80th birthday. The weekly Torah portion happened to be Sh’mot. Here is what I had to say about the portion and about where we are as a Jewish community.

So here we are, it’s the first day of a new secular year and, as it happens, this Shabbat our parasha is the start of a new book of Torah: Sh’mot – the book of Exodus.

Here at Solel, 2015 was a year all about completing big projects that were years in the making. For example, we replaced our roof, which was the biggest capital project that we’ve undertaken as a congregation since we built our building here on Folkway Drive. Of course, even more significantly, in 2015 we completed our search for, hired and installed only our second Rabbi in our forty-plus years as a congregation.

Both of these major projects have been part of the broader effort to strengthen Solel and to prepare us for the future. We’ve made a huge investment in ensuring that we have a safe, dry, sound place to come together for many years to come, and we’ve undertaken an enormous effort to think very hard about who we are as a Jewish community and about where we want to go next together. Then we searched high and low to find the Rabbi who can lead us there. I’m sure you’ll agree that all of this hard work really paid off in finding Rabbi Audrey Pollack.

In the Torah, just last week we finished reading Bere’shit, the book of Genesis, which takes us from the creation of the world, through the story of the first Jew, Abraham, and up to Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph bringing the whole family to Egypt to escape famine.

This Shabbat, as we start to read the book of Exodus, we’re about to embark on the master narrative of the Jewish people: how we moved from slavery to Pharaoh, to freedom, and ultimately to the revelation of Torah and a new covenant with Adonai at Mount Sinai.

So, who would you say is the “hero of the book of Exodus?” Many people would suggest Moses, after all, is he not often described as “greatest of all prophets”?

Apart from Adonai, of course, Moses is undoubtedly the hero of the book of Exodus, and in our parasha this week, we get to meet Moses for the first time. We also get to learn a lot more about Moses and his character in this portion than is ultimately revealed in the rest of Torah. It’s interesting that for all the talking Moses does throughout the rest of Torah, very little of his personality shines through the way it does in parasha Sh’mot.

So, let’s delve in and see what we can learn about Moses and what kind of person he was.

To set the stage a little bit, let’s remind ourselves of where we are and how we got there: Joseph brought his whole family, his father Jacob and all his brothers to Egypt where they prospered and grew to be very numerous. A new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph nor did he treat the Israelites with the respect that they were accustomed to under the old regime. The new Pharaoh was paranoid about the strength of the Israelites and pressed them, first into forced labour, and ultimately into slavery. And in order to ensure that the Israelites would not become a military threat, the Pharaoh ordered that Jewish baby boys be killed.

So, it’s within this hostile environment that Moses is born. His parents were Levites and they hid Moses for as long as they could, but ultimately they came up with the pretty questionable plan of putting little baby Moses in a basket and floating him down the Nile. As it turns out, the plan worked better than anyone could have suspected and a princess of Egypt found Moses and decided to raise him as her own son. And so it was that Moses became part of the royal court in Egypt.

We first meet Moses as an adult in Exodus, Chapter 2, verse 11. I’m going to read a few verses starting from there:

…when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labours. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. …

How often, when you think of Moses, do you think: “He’s the guy with the anger management problem, who commits manslaughter when he thinks he can get away with it, and who runs away when he thinks he’s going to get caught?” OK, so maybe we can cut Moses a little slack. Let’s focus on the fact that he was fighting for the underdog and not on the fact that he looks over his shoulder before doing it.

As the story continues, Moses settles in Midian, meets Zipporah, a nice shepherd girl, and settles down and starts a family. After a good long while, the Pharaoh who had it in for Moses died, so Moses no longer had to be worried about showing his face in Egypt. At the same time, things for the Israelites in Egypt got so bad that God decided it was time to fulfill His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and get the Israelites out of slavery.

In Exodus chapters 3 and 4, we read the famous story of God talking to Moses from the burning bush. So how does Moses respond to God’s call? At first, Moses is fascinated by the sight of the burning bush. Then God calls to Moses and tells him that God plans to bring the Israelites out of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey, and that Moses will be God’s emissary to Pharaoh to free the slaves.

So what does our hero do? He tries five times to talk his way out of doing what God has just commanded. He’s got all kinds of excuses: first it’s “I’m nobody special”, then “The Israelites won’t follow me” and “they won’t believe I talked to you” and then “I’m not very good with words” and finally just “Oh, come on, please send someone else!”

Each time Moses objects, God, comes up with an answer, showing Moses that he isn’t going to be doing this alone, that God will be doing all the “heavy lifting”.

Through the centuries, some people have looked at this conversation between God and Moses and said “look how amazingly humble Moses is!” But is that really the message of Torah? In chapter 4, verse 14 it says that Adonai eventually got mad at Moses and all of his excuses. If God made Moses such an amazingly humble man, would He get mad at Moses for showing humility? I think the Torah is pretty clear. Moses is intimidated by this mission which God is giving him, maybe Moses is even a little scared, or maybe he’s a little lazy.

Freeing the Israelites seems like a pretty daunting task. I’m sure Moses was thinking to himself, “How on Earth am I going to pull this off?” Still, the Torah tells us that Moses shouldn’t have been worried. It’s God who will free the Israelites. Moses is just God’s messenger. Isn’t it interesting that God, who clearly doesn’t need Moses’ reluctant help to get the job done, nevertheless insists that Moses work as God’s agent in this plan. For reasons, I suppose, only He knows, God wants and expects us to take an active role in making God’s plan unfold in the world.

Despite all of Moses’ objections, God is not one to take “no” for an answer, so He sends Moses back to Egypt with his brother Aaron as a metaphorical crutch, and a staff that can turn into a snake as an actual crutch, to deliver the news to Pharaoh and to the Israelites, that the time of slavery in Egypt is at an end. We all know how the story turns out. Even so, this story is so important to who we are as Jews that we retell the story every year at Pesach. God leads us out of slavery in Egypt to receive Torah at Sinai and after some bumps and lots of kvetching He brings us ultimately to the Promised Land. – This is our master narrative. Everything we believe and do as Jews is built on the story that begins with this week’s Torah portion.

So as we Solelniks begin 2016, what’s the master narrative that we will write for ourselves?

We’ve come through some challenging times in recent years, with big projects and intimidating decisions to make, and we’ve begun the journey to the Solel of the future. To be sure, there are a lot of challenges that we face: No matter how hard we try, a lot of us seem to be getting older every day. Secularism is on the rise, our busy lives make it harder and harder to make room for spirituality, and money always seems to be tight. So what are we to do?

The easy answer might be to take a cue from our reluctant hero Moses. We could make excuses. After all, who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the difficult questions that we face as people of faith in an increasingly secular world? Who’s going to feel like they have just the right words to say or all the right ideas to solve the challenges that we face? At the same time, our Torah teaches us that we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have be the most capable, the most eager, or even, apparently, completely free of the urge to commit manslaughter.

God has a plan, and He wants us to bring this plan into action in the world. We know that it won’t be easy. As they say, nothing worth having is ever easy, but just like with Moses, God will be doing the heavy lifting. We just need to get over our reservations and objections and start moving the plan forward. May 2016 be a year in which we Solelniks work diligently to write the next chapter of our own master narrative – as we build our congregation for the sake of our families, for the broader Jewish community, and for the wider community in which we live.

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