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Torah:  Exodus 1:1 to 6:1;
Haftarah:  Isaiah 27:6 to 28:13 and 29:22-23, or Jeremiah 1:1 to 2:3.

Quite a lot happens in this Torah reading: Moses' early life, his exile, his call by God, his return to Egypt and the first conversation with Pharoah. For the moment, though, I want to focus on a single scene: the conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1 to 4:17).

(Remove your shoes and tiptoe past the orange burning bush for more.)

We are told in Numbers 12:3 that "Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." This declaration seems a little strange if one holds the viewpoint that the Torah was written exclusively by Moses (does a truly humble person think they're humble?) But the conversation between Moses and God in Exodus 3-4 does seem to confirm this statement.

What would you do if you suddenly found yourself having a conversation with God? Ask for stuff (money, a bigger house, a better career?) Demand an explanation, like Job, as to why God permits suffering and evil in the world? Start negotiating with him, like Abraham often did? (I know what I'd do: ask questions!)

Moses does none of these things. Instead, he argues with God, who has just told him he must go to Pharoah and ask for Israel to be freed. "You've got the wrong person. Please don't pick me. I'm not capable of liberating my people. I can't even speak in public!" (One would think that arguing with God would be far scarier than speaking to Pharoah; but then again, it's often said that people fear public speaking more than death. And Moses doesn't entirely seem to realize, at this point, who he's dealing with here.)

In any case, an odd choice for God to make -- one might think. Why pick this man who is obviously so lacking in self-esteem? Why not pick a great leader? An eloquent, riveting speaker? Someone who is confident and self-assured, who knows exactly what to say and without hesitation or doubt accepts God's mission? Why pick this unsure, hesitant, timid man who is "slow of speech and slow of tongue?"

I am reminded of this passage from Paulo Coelho:

"Warriors of light always keep a certain gleam in their eyes. They are of this world, they are part of the lives of other people and they set out on their journey with no saddlebags and no sandals. They are often cowardly. They do not always make the right decisions. They suffer over the most trivial things, they have mean thoughts and sometimes believe they are incapable of growing. They frequently deem themselves unworthy of any blessing or miracle. They are not always quite sure what they are doing here. They spend many sleepless nights, believing that their lives have no meaning. That is why they are warriors of light. Because they make mistakes. Because they ask themselves questions. Because they are looking for a reason – and are sure to find it."
And this, by the poet W. B. Yeats:
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
Moses is certainly not "full of passionate intensity." He lacks all conviction -- particularly in himself. He has certainly made mistakes and was forced to flee Egypt after killing an Egyptian in a rather naive attempt to help his people. (One is reminded of the "shoot-'em-up" mentality of many video games: just kill the "bad people" and our problems will be solved, right?) He likely sees himself as a coward and a failure: once a prince in Egypt, now a shepherd hiding out in Midian; a "stranger in a strange land." A nobody. A loser. Someone whose once-promising life now holds no meaning.

Until God speaks to him.

I am also reminded of the character of Frodo from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Frodo is certainly not a great warrior or wizard. He's not strong, not powerful and not even particularly wise, though he is perceptive and imaginative. Yet it is, oddly, Frodo who the One Ring comes to; and it is Frodo, for all his longing to give up the Ring and return to the Shire, who volunteers to bear it to Mount Doom. Not because he feels he's the perfect one for the task. But simply because there is nobody else wiling to do it.

In a recent diary, I mentioned a friend who wishes to help others and change the world, but admitted to me that he "feels powerless." Many people in our society share this feeling of hopelessness: what chance does a single person have against the system? All the corporations and politicians and special interests eagerly working to exploit our fellow human beings and destroy our world?

What chance did Moses have against the thousands of Egyptian taskmasters and nobles and Pharoah himself: this massive economic and industrial system based on unpaid Israelite labour?

And yet, with God's help, he was able to free his people.

In the same diary, I also discussed how I'd led a protest in my own city as part of the "Connect the Dots" Day of Action to raise awareness about climate change. I certainly didn't enthusiastically volunteer to lead a protest. I didn't feel "qualified" or "capable". I had no experience.

But I did it -- because nobody else was going to.

As I (and Moses) found, nobody is going to change the world but us. "Ordinary" people. "Unqualified" people. "Uncertain" people. Not always the rich or qualified or powerful.

Humble people. Who, because of their very humility, keep open minds and are wiling to think outside the box. Who are not convinced that their way is the "right" way. Who don't think they already know everything.

People who are willing to listen to -- and even, sometimes, argue with -- God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 01:42 PM PST.

Also republished by Elders of Zion.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

    by Eowyn9 on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 01:42:14 PM PST

  •  Frankly, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    I am also reminded of the character of Frodo from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
    Frodo is a more believable story than Moses.

    As my father used to say,"We have the best government money can buy."

    by BPARTR on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 01:54:00 PM PST

  •  There is a certain dissonance in calling Moses (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    humble. He was, after all, raised in the court of the Pharaoh
    and lived a privilege life in a royal setting. This was also the man who killed an Egyptian overseer who was tormenting a Hebrew; not exactly the act of a humble man.  

    •  Perhaps at first -- but circumstances quickly (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      humbled Moses. His first attempts to fight for his people didn't work out too well (and almost got him killed.) He was forced into exile and spent years as a lowly shepherd.

      By the time God spoke to him at the burning bush, he appears to have lost any confidence he might once have had.

      Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

      by Eowyn9 on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 03:06:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Talmudic Midrash at Exodus Rabbah 1:26 (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        When Moses was a baby Pharoh would hug and kiss and play with him, and the baby Moses would take the crown off of Pharoh's head and put it on his own.  Pharoh's magicians were horrified and told Pharoh to behead the baby.  But Jethro, Moses's future father-in-law, was in the court at the time and suggested bringing two plates before the baby, one filled with gold and the other piled with burning coals.  Jethro said that if the baby reaches for the gold, behead him but if he reaches for the hot coals, the baby is obviously pretty stupid so you can let him live.  

        The courtiers agreed and brought the two plates, one piled with gold and the other piled with hot coals.  Moses reached for the coals but the angel Gabriel moved the baby's hand to the coals.  Moses picked up a burning coal, stuck it to his mouth, and thereby became "slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10) - suffering from a severe speech defect - for the rest of his life.  That is why the rabbis said he was so humble - it was because of his speech defect.

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

        by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 04:50:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Interesting -- though you'd think (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp

          that any baby smart enough to hatch a nefarious plot against Pharoah, would also be smart enough to reach for the coals, not the gold.

          Still, perhaps we're not meant to take it too literally.

          Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

          by Eowyn9 on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 05:10:02 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  We're not meant to take it literally (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Eowyn9, Nospinicus

            This is how the rabbis amused themselves when they were not arguing intricate points of Jewish law.  Some of their stories were intended to have moral points, although I'm not sure about this one.  They were trying to explain why Moses was humble - he was self-conscious about his speech defect, so if he could overcome this disability others can overcome theirs as well.  The last point was my invention, but I guess it's as good an explanation as any.  

            "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

            by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 06:14:11 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  He was raised in the court of the Pharaoh ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ... believing himself the son (or grandson) of the divine ruler of Egypt.  And then found out he was one of the Hebrews, a people he had probably been raised to believe were fit only to be slaves.

      I can't think of too many experiences that would be more humbling than that.

      •  I wonder at what age he first learned (0+ / 0-)

        who his birth family truly were.

        He seems well aware of it by the burning bush incident, since God tells Moses that he will send Aaron, his brother, to accompany him (and Moses does not seem at all surprised by this.)

        I wonder if, being raised in the Pharoah's court, Moses was given a rather romanticized picture of his people's role in Egyptian society (in the same way that Southern pro-slavery rhetoric depicted African-American slaves as "happy" and "content.") "They 'help' to build the graneries and storage cities." "It's in return for our kindness for taking them in during the famine." "They're eager to repay us." And so on.

        Exodus 2:11 does imply it was quite a shock for Moses to see the reality -- maybe even more so than learning he was a Hebrew. "One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labour." I am reminded a bit of Siddhartha, protected from the sight of misery all his childhood, first seeing what life was really like outside his palace complex.

        This is true for so many of the rich and powerful, really, who go to elaborate steps (living in gated communities, building mansions, shopping only in certain areas) to isolate themselves from the less fortunate. It's as though they knew that if they saw it -- or if their children saw it, as in Moses' case -- they would be forced to deal with the suffering their lifestyle is causing to others. Until then, they can pretend the whole world is like the fantasy they have constructed.

        Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

        by Eowyn9 on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 09:15:14 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I know there is at least one school of thought (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          that holds that Moses was not raised believing he was an Egyptian, but always knew he was a Hebrew -- just one who was privileged to be raised in the royal household.  It's certainly possible, and would explain why there is no moment of realizing the Awful Truth in the text, but either way the implication is (as you say) that one way or another he was sheltered from knowing/understanding just how bad things really were for the slaves.

          I don't know if the wealthy keep themselves and their children sheltered for that reason, or just because seeing other people suffering is unpleasant and it's easier to not look than to try to fix it.

          •  They see people suffering (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            all the time - the gardener with arthritis, the maid who leaves her own children alone after school to take care of their children, etc. They just don't see it. They do not see these as real people with families and real feelings. It's a failure of empathy, or even sympathy. As we saw with the Romneys, they really have no idea about another kind of life.

            Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

            by ramara on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 01:11:55 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Or even just of imagination. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              "What would it feel like to be poor (or a member of a visible minority, or a rape victim, or uninsured with a pre-existing condition, or the child of illegal immigrants, or...?)"

              A question that Romney seemed incapable of asking, or comprehending.

              No wonder he got called the Romney-bot.

              Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

              by Eowyn9 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 06:20:52 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  When Jacob died, Egypt went into morning. (0+ / 0-)

    Three or four generations later, Pharaoh was having first born Jews killed and the Jews were impressed into slavery. It really went downhill fast after the death of Joseph.

    "You can die for Freedom, you just can't exercise it"

    by shmuelman on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 02:46:52 PM PST

  •  Republished to Elders of Zion n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 04:52:12 PM PST

  •  Exactly! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I don't know if you've ever seen the animated adaptation Prince of Egypt, but I have always liked its characterization of Moses -- largely because even prior to seeing it, I liked the notion that Moses's humility is the result of a crushing and painful blow to an arrogance that he was raised to.

    •  It's funny how Hollywood (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Eowyn9, SchuyH

      often comes up with answers to some of our questions in the story of Moses. I've seen a rabbi call Prince of Egypt a midrash, and I agree. It goes against the usual idea of Aaron and Moses in sibling rivalry - the real sibling rivalry is between Moses and Pharaoh in the film, the brother of his childhood.

      Jochoved nursed Moses, presumably until he was three or so. But I saw one sociological study saying that the practice of slaves nursing children actually reinforces the slavery culture. Since the wet-nurse is the child's first love object, learning that he has loved an inferior being causes a violent reaction against that love as the child grows.

      Cecil B. DeMille also answers another of my questions - as an adoptive mother, I always bristle as if Moses' childhood and youth counted for nothing in his life. What about Pharaoh's daughter? Nobody is going to write the story of my son's life without including me! I wondered about her response to the whole story of the exodus. In The Ten Commandments, she asks to leave with the Israelites, and she does.

      Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

      by ramara on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 01:03:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I believe that in this particular case (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ramara, Eowyn9, SchuyH

        the filmmakers consulted a number of Jewish and Christian religious leaders for advice.

        Sorry, though -- the "usual idea" of Aaron and Moses in sibling rivalry?  I've never heard any interpretation that suggests there was rivalry between them; theirs was a full partnership with Moses as the acknowledged senior partner (despite being the younger brother).

        Pharaoh's daughter, like most Biblical women, gets sadly little screen time.  I believe there is a midrash to the effect that she leaves Egypt with the Israelites, and another to the effect that she is dead by the time of the Exodus but finds God before her death -- and is thus renamed from "Pharaoh's daughter, Bat-Paraoh, to "daughter of God", Bat-Yah.

        Yes, that's the source of my name.  :)

        •  I'm thinking ahead (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I don't agree, but have seen commentary that part of the Golden Calf incident is Aaron's jealousy of Moses. Also, that is given to explain the lashan hara against Moses by Miriam and Aaron in Numbers - where Aaron gets off easy.

          Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

          by ramara on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 01:15:28 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Oh that's interesting. (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            SchuyH, ramara, Eowyn9

            And I suppose one could read the Golden Calf incident that way?  But it's hard to reconcile that motivation with the fact that Aaron comes out of it entirely unpunished.

            •  Personally (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I think Aaron was trying to provide a transitional object to keep the people from going wild, to focus them on something while they were frightened that Moses wasn't coming back. I think the calf was supposed to represent God, not to be a god in itself.

              I think God was providing the people with a transitional object also, with the Mishkan. The Israelites were just not ready to deal with a God they couldn't see.

              Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

              by ramara on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 10:15:57 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  That's how it's always read to me -- (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Eowyn9, ramara

                -- the people were panicking and Aaron was doing the best he could to soothe them.

                I believe some commentators hold that the Mishkan and the later Temple were not part of God's original plan, but were instituted once He observed that, as you say, the Israelites weren't ready for a form of worship that had no visible/tangible focus.

                •  Tangent: This brings to mind a humorous (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  childhood story.

                  I must have been about 5 or 6 years old, and quite fascinated with the Old Testament (I came from a Christian background). Reading, I came across many references to how the Israelites kept turning away from God and "worshipping foreign idols" like the golden calf.

                  I was quite intrigued because, even though God kept smiting the nation with all sorts of wars and punishments and plagues, they kept on worshipping those idols. It was like idol-worship was the most irresistable, tantalizing, thrilling sin imaginable.

                  Having drawn this conclusion, of course as a scientifically-minded kid I set out to test my hypothesis. I would try worshipping an "idol" for a week and see if it was really as thrilling as the Bible made it out to be. I took my life-sized plastic doll, set it up on top of a chair, and proceeded to bow down and pray to it three times a day.

                  (Yes, I was a kid. Please don't drag me off and stone me ;-D)

                  I gave the experiment up after a mere 2 days, since it was the most boring thing I'd ever done in my life. I couldn't see the point (and was severely disappointed). I modified my conclusion...the ancient Israelites were clearly all out of their minds, if they risked God's wrath for this.


                  ...Of course, that was when I was 5...knowing a bit more about psychology and sociology now, I think I understand better. It is hard to worship something invisible, infinite, and indefinable. Between a golden calf and an invisible God (that sometimes appears as smoke, sometimes fire, and sometimes nothing at all) the golden calf is going to win out nine times out of ten.

                  People like to worship "stuff", or gods that are in charge of particular categories of "stuff" (like the Greek pantheon). In our society as well. We like to think we're enormously advanced, abstract thinkers, but "stuff" (houses, cars, food, clothes, money) still has a way of capturing our attention. That's why advertising works.

                  Come to think of it, that's why televangelists try to advertise God using "stuff" (most often money) as well. "Still small voices" don't sell very well (nor do invisible deities).

                  There's also the question of predictability. If you worship a golden calf (thought to be a symbol of fertility, as I recall) you pretty much know what results you'll get if it's "happy". :D The God of Everything, on the other hand...who knows what he/she/it will do next? Send a plague of locusts? Dry up a sea? Zap offenders with fire from heaven? It must have been, frankly, quite terrifying.

                  Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

                  by Eowyn9 on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 05:29:42 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  I think the fun parts (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:

                    of idol worship would have been beyond a five-year-old's ken. It was things like child sacrifice, sacred prostitution, and other sensual rituals I think.

                    Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

                    by ramara on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 06:02:28 PM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  I'm not sure I would consider child sacrifice (0+ / 0-)

                      "fun"...but sacred prostitution, there's an idea... ;)

                      And also all that drinking and dancing and feasting. (Sounds a bit like Christmas, actually). :D

                      Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

                      by Eowyn9 on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 06:18:58 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                  •  There is a discussion somewhere in the Talmud iirc (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:

                    about how sometime after the destruction of the first Temple, God decided that trying to keep the Israelites away from idol worship was just a lost cause, so He removed the temptation for idolatry from the world.

                    Or at least they taught us that in school.  I kinda want to go back to those rabbis now and ask how they explain, f'rinstance, India's healthy and thriving polytheistic religion.

                    •  Huh. They mean that God changed human nature (0+ / 0-)

                      so that people were no longer interested in worshipping idols?

                      Yeah, I think the thriving polytheistic religions of the Greeks/Romans/Norse etc, etc for many centuries afterwards, kind of disproves that theory. (Plus, as you say, polytheistic religions are alive and well in India among other places.)

                      Besides, I wouldn't buy it anyway. God doesn't act that way. (If he/she/it did, why not just entirely remove evil from human nature so as to eliminate all greed, war, hatred and suffering?)

                      Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

                      by Eowyn9 on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 07:29:16 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  That is in fact what it would mean! (1+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:

                        Also, sorry: second Temple, I think, not first.  This would have been after the Greeks, around the time that the Romans were abandoning their pantheon for Christianity  (not sure about the Norse).  I think this was sort of a way to attempt to explain the rise of monotheism in the countries where most Jews were living, when such a thing had never happened before.

                        Yeah I don't really buy it either, both because God demonstrably does not act that way and because polytheism is demonstrably alive and well in other parts of the world.

                        •  This brings up a general question I have (0+ / 0-)

                          about Judaism.

                          Is the Talmud considered authoritative? (Infallible, or divinely inspired, in the same way that conservative Christians generally depict the Bible?)

                          For that matter, is the Hebrew Bible considered authoritative in that way?

                          Or do most Jews see room for interpretation and perhaps human error in its transmission?

                          Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

                          by Eowyn9 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 09:59:39 AM PST

                          [ Parent ]

                          •  A very good question! Or set of questions really. (1+ / 0-)
                            Recommended by:

                            I'm about to give you the Orthodox approach, which is the one I was raised with.  Conservative and Reform and other various groups within Judaism have their own approaches.

                            The Hebrew Bible is considered authoritative on three separate levels:  the Torah (Pentateuch, Five Books of Moses) is said to be the direct word of God as dictated to Moses; the Books of the Prophets are said to be written by the prophets whose word was given to them by God; and the Holy Writings (Hagiographia) are said to be in some lesser fashion divinely inspired, although neither directly nor indirectly God-given.

                            The Talmud, while not considered infallible -- by far most of it consists of arguments between rabbis, which definitely establishes that disagreement and fallibility are part of the process -- is considered to have far greater weight than any discussion by any rabbis since.  Since the Talmud is in large part the repository of the Oral Law -- said to have originated with God via Moses on Sinai -- direct or indirect study of it is considered crucial to understanding the Written Law.

                            Now this is where it gets complicated: despite the fact that the Torah is considered infallible and authoritative, there is also wide, wide scope for multiple interpretations.  There is a saying that the Torah has seventy faces, which is to say that there are many different possible correct ways of looking at any one thing that it says.  (This is not to say that there are no incorrect ways, but rather to say that we are not limited to one and only one interpretation.)

                            There is no translation of the Hebrew Bible that is considered authoritative at all, in any language.

                            (As regards human error in transmission ... thaaat is kind of a controversial topic.  We have a ridonkulous number of strictures and laws regarding the copying of the Bible that is supposed to prevent error, but there is evidence that some ambiguity has crept in anyway.  Since we have no other option, though, we are generally expected to treat the version we have as authentic.)

        •  P.S. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          It's a lovely name. : )

          Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

          by ramara on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 01:16:56 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Daughter of God -- that's beautiful! (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          SchuyH, ramara

          I love it! But, what is the "Toon" part in reference to?

          I also love the idea that Pharaoh's daughter left along with the Israelites. It dovetails nicely with the tradition, seen throughout the Hebrew Bible, of various "outsiders" -- often women -- being accepted into the Jewish culture and even playing an important role: Hagar (though she was later sent away), Asenath (Joseph's wife), Rahab, Ruth and probably many others. A good counter-balance to all the ethnically-based violence of Deuteronomy and Joshua.

          Let's make 2013 the year we take back our planet.

          by Eowyn9 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 06:17:37 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thank you! :) (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Eowyn9, ramara

            "Batya" is actually my given name.  "Toon" (as in cartoon character) has been part of my internet handle for as long as I've had internet handles, so I kept it here.

            And yes, there really are rather more outsider women than men adopted into the tribe, as it were.  Although let's not forget Jethro, who joins up with the Israelites later.

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