This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana Evening sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago in September 2020. It was part of a series on Five Jewish Questions. Video is available here.
If you were Moses, what would you do? You see a bush on fire that is not consumed. A voice calls you by name. It claims to be the god of your ancestors. It has heard the suffering of Hebrew slavery, and it promises to deliver them to a land flowing with milk and honey. And then the voice says, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring out my people, the children of Israel, from Egypt.” What would you do? This is no cough medicine hallucination. You did not choose this situation; until recently you had a comfortable life, an adopted son of Egyptian royalty. You fled Egypt after killing an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. And now you are being asked to go back to the scene of your crime, to address your people’s suffering, to challenge power face to face. What does Moses do? He asks a question. “Who am I, that I should confront Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
A simple yet profound question: who am I? It is simple because early in life, we learn to respond to the sound of our own names. Even coma patients sometimes show brain activity when they hear their names. “Who am I” is also profound because if you do not know who you are, how can you know others? How can you experience the world if not from the fixed point of the self? This question can be an escape, hiding behind the anonymity of just a normal person – “Who am I” meaning I am really nobody, and a nobody does nothing. This question can also be a challenge – who am I really, am I the person I want to be? “Who am I” can be an out or a commitment. Which would you have chosen as Moses? Which do you choose today?
This High Holiday season, we explore Jewish questions. For us, being Jewish is our particular subset of the human experience. Some Jewish questions are Jewish specific – which haroset recipe for Passover do you like the best? What lessons do you draw from the Jewish experience? Other Jewish questions speak to the human condition. The very act of asking questions is both very Jewish and very human – as far as I know, every language has words for “why” and “how.” The universal human quest for “why” and “how” is the basis of science and history and knowledge based on evidence. Jews do not have a monopoly on asking questions, just like we do not have a monopoly on guilt – ask any ex-Catholic. Yet asking questions can STILL be very Jewish – a key element of the Passover seder is the four questions. One way that we Humanistic Jews differ from our forebearers is that we are more open to new answers, to heretical answers, even to challenging the questions themselves. To be fair, though, one of Moses’ defining characteristics is his chutzpah, his nerve. When Noah is told to build the ark and save only his family, he asks no questions. When Moses is commanded, he asks many questions, starting with “Why me?”
More precisely, “Who am I that I should confront Pharaoh?” Perhaps Moses suspects there will be more to do than just snap his fingers to free the Israelites. Spoiler alert: Moses’ work will not be over from now until the end of the Torah when he dies in the very last chapter – after the burning bush there will be 40 more years of leading, negotiating and arguing to get this stubborn, stiff-necked people to the Promised Land.
In our own days, you do not need me to tell you that WE face many challenges. We face them as Americans, as part of the Jewish family, and as human beings. The Passover Haggadah describes 10 plagues that Moses inflicts on Pharaoh and the Egyptians; 2020 has 10 plagues beaten easily. In no particular order:
Racism, sexism, homophobia, hyper-partisanship, rising temperatures and extreme weather, policing and the criminal justice system, poverty and hunger, domestic violence, constitutional crisis du jour, massive budget and pension shortfalls, health care, automation and job disruption, government corruption, cyberprivacy and the pitfalls of social media, immigration policy, hurricanes and killer wasps. And, of course, the plague of coronavirus which includes illness, death, shutdowns, school openings, school closings, economic disruption, videoconference overload…and a Rosh Hashana when we are together emotionally but the sanctuary is empty.
Facing all of our plagues, our Pharaohs, we also ask “Why me? Who am I to confront all of this? And for how much longer?” The challenges are overwhelming, and we have no confidence in a guaranteed happy ending. In the real world in which we live, there IS no promised land flowing with milk and honey, no pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to show us exactly where to go, no miraculous hand and outstretched arm to fight for us. Yet the people we deal with are just as stubborn and stiff-necked as ever!
And we are not Moses. Of course, at the start of his saga even Moses was not Moses. He was uncertain, asking for help, looking to avoid responsibility. A leader after 40 years had better be different than a leader in year one. I once prepared for a funeral for a woman who had lived well into her 90s – I first met with her children, who were seniors themselves by that point, and they had had a challenging relationship with her as a mother when they were small children. Over next couple of days, I also had the opportunity to talk separately with her grandchildren, and they had experienced her very differently – she had been loving, and generous, caring and interested in their lives. Those who are grandparents can tell you that parenting and grandparenting are VERY different. But the experience is also different because the ADULT is different – this grandmother was 30 years older and wiser, with different responsibilities from when she was a mother to small children. Every one of us has had experiences we look back on today and say, “If only I’d handled that differently.” We cannot expect to have lived our lives then with what we know now. Part of letting go of misdeeds and omissions at the Jewish New Year, our own or those of others, is to not expect anyone to have been perfect from the beginning.
It does not matter that we are not yet Moses; we will probably never be Moses. A Hasidic story told by Martin Buber makes the point: Rabbi Zusya once said, “In the coming world they will not ask me: ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses?’ Instead, they will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” We do not have to be Moses, and we do not have to solve every problem I listed to make a difference. We do have to be our version of Zusya – our best self. And we do have to act, because not acting is also a choice, no matter who you are.
Yes, the Pharaohs we face are daunting. Some “Pharaohs” are systemic from the founding of a nation, be it race in America or Arabs in a self-defined Jewish state and the territories it controls. Some are the result of generations of bad decisions and short-sighted leadership unable to make hard choices. Some are unforeseen consequences of good intentions. Some are the result of cruelty, indifference, or a lack of empathy. We’ll talk more about these problems tomorrow morning when we ask another Jewish question, “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?”
For the moment, though, imagine you are at a summer camp, standing at the deep end of the pool during first period when it’s still chilly. You know the water will be cold when you jump in. You know you get better every time you swim, and once you start swimming the water will not feel as cold. And you know that going in one toe at a time will be just as cold and take much longer to get through. The hardest part is making that decision to take the leap. We can certainly get more information before we act – dip a toe in the water, ask a friend who already jumped in. Moses himself asks many questions.
Here’s the dialogue, you can image it in instant message format:
“Go free the Israelites from Pharaoh.”
“Who am I to go to Pharaoh to free the Israelites?”
“Don’t worry, I will be with you.”
“The Israelites will ask me later, so tell me now: who are YOU to send me?” (in other words, “who dis?”)
“Tell them I am the god of their fathers and they will listen.”
“What if they don’t believe me and think I imagined all this?”
“Here are some signs and wonders – make your staff into a snake and back, turn your hand leprous and then heal it. If those don’t work, we’ll turn the Nile to blood.”
“I am slow of speech and slow of tongue, please send someone else.”
You get the sense that Moses really does NOT want the job.
We could make our own excuses to avoid acting – I did not create the problem, even if I benefit from it. I am not trying to hurt anyone. These problems are beyond my ability to solve. I have no status that people should listen to me. I’m no Moses; I’m not even a Zusya. And I do not even know enough to know where to begin, even if I decide to act. These excuses may all be true. But they not good enough to do nothing. We can all move the ball forward, even if only a little. In Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Ancestors, Rabbi Tarfon said,
the day is short, and the work is plentiful; the workers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.
Tarfon clearly believed there WAS a “master of the house” directing the action and a cosmic reward for doing his will. Even without master or reward, for us the day is still short, there is still plenty of work, and we cannot rely on others to get it done. Sometimes if you want something done right, or done at all, you have to start it yourself.
“Who am I, that I should confront Pharaoh?” We reject this question as escape – we may not finish the work, but we are not free to neglect it. Instead it is a commitment: what do we each have in our personal toolbox to bring to bear to the problems we face? It may be more than we realize.
Some of us have financial resources. The need for tzedakah or righteous giving is deep for many worthy causes, and you can find people doing good work consistent with any political or religious ideology. But generosity is not a function of raw dollars. Did you know that those who earn less money often give a higher percentage of their income in charitable donations? In 2016, among those who itemized, those earning $50,000 to $100,000 donated 1% MORE of their adjusted gross income than those earning $500,000 to $2 million. The higher earners gave more dollars but were less generous. Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos has a net worth around $200 billion. If he donated $20 million, that would be same as someone worth $200,000 donating….$20. Do not ask why you cannot be Bill Gates – look at where you are and go from there.
Some of us have educational resources. We are good at reading or writing or explaining complex issues. We can deepen our understanding of the challenges: their origins, their persistence, their possible solutions. We can motivate others to change behavior or work for the good. We can connect with family and friends who might listen to us when they do not listen to strangers. Moses’ first worry is not whether Yahweh will convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites – Moses doubts that the ISRAELITES will believe it can happen, so he has to convince them first! If change starts at home, we can start by connecting with the minds and hearts of those we know best.
Some of us have privilege. I know this is a loaded term, but year after year at Kol Hadash we speak of the need for nuanced understandings, and here is another opportunity. You CAN be privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. Ashkenazi Jews are not white to Nazi white nationalists, but they may be treated as white by loan officers or police officers. I am definitely white if I go to the beach without sunblock! Acknowledging privilege does not mean apologizing for something you did not do or being shamed for who you are. This is not the oppression Olympics where the most suffering wins. If you do have inherited wealth, or visually white skin, or standard English, you start the race of life some steps ahead of those without those advantages. We sometimes hear an absolute choice: either equality of opportunity or equality of result. Either everyone has an unweighted fair opportunity to succeed on merit alone, or equal end results are imposed through boosting some and weighing down others.
In the real world, we all get to that starting line from different beginnings, through different experiences, with different assets. If certain names or accents or skin colors are less likely to get a good education or housing or equal treatment by the justice system, then we need to pay special attention to what happens before the starting line in order to have real equality of opportunity.
What do we do if we are on the more fortunate side of perceived race and education and income? We use it to do good. Moses was an Israelite adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. He did not have to intervene to save the Hebrew being beaten by the Egyptian taskmaster, long before he heard the voice. After the killing, Moses had escaped, far away from Egypt. He went back to Egypt to help others. So, too, did the 19th century “Moses,” Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849 only to return 13 times to rescue at least 70 fellow slaves. She did not free herself and then leave others to do the same; she went back at great risk to herself to help and show them the way.
All of us have opportunities. We do not have to wait for a burning bush or a voice from the heavens to act. We no longer need freedom riders on interstate busses, but freedom walkers, freedom voters, freedom citizens can still make a difference. To make that difference, we have to accept the challenge of “who am I” – what are my values, and how valuable are my values to my sense of self?
When Moses meets the burning bush, it is an external authority, a god who tells him what he must do. Even if Moses asks some questions, he knows and the readers know who is really in charge. Our task today is more challenging. If we ask “who am I, that I should confront today’s Pharaohs,” we do not expect an answer from beyond. The answer must come from within.
You do not have to be a prophet, a Moses, a god. You are Zusya; you are Harriet; you are YOU. You are the only you there is, and if you do not bring who you are and what you have to push for the changes you want to see, then you will have missed this unique opportunity, a moment that will never come again.
In Pirke Avot, we read that “There are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.” What makes your name great? You do. So make your name great by what you do with who you are. Call received. Answer awaited.