Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar, January 2010
Parshat Vaera opens with these words:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נֹודַ֖עְתִּ לָהֶֽם׃
“G-d Spoke to Moses and said to him “I am Hashem, I appeared to Abraham, Issac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name Hashem…”
If you are not following the saga closely, you might think that Moses is standing with his shoes off at the burning bush, and G-d is trying to persuade him to return to Egypt and save his people. You might not be aware that the dialog at the burning bush took place last week and that Moses has since packed up his shepherding robes and staff and headed to Egypt. Moses has convinced the leadership of Israel that he has been sent by G-d and has already broached the topic of freeing the Israelites with Pharoah, but Pharoah replied by making circumstances harder for the people. Moses has just experienced his first letdown, his first moment of doubt.
This puzzles me. Moshe is often touted as an example of leadership. He has received direct revelation from G-d and surely must has a sense of mission. Yet, after the first setback, Moshe comes back to G-d dejected asking:
“למה הרעתה לעם הזה, למה זה שלחתני, ומאז באתי אל פרעה לדבר בשמך הרע לעם הזה והצל לא הצלת את עמך”
Why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me? Ever since I
came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name he has dealt worse with this people and still You have not delivered Your people?
Has Moshe forgotten the revelation at the burning bush? Has he lost faith in G-d’s omnipotence? What is the source of his doubt and why express it now?
This doubt might be explained by the Ramban who writes that Moshe thought he was being brought in to do a quick job. Go down to Egypt and tell Pharoah to let the Jews go. Moses does not expect it to be simple, but he does expect G-d’s miracles and plagues to occur in quick succession. That immediately after pharaoh says that he does not know G-d, G-d demonstrates ultimate power and would set the record straight. Moses is expecting his return to Egypt to trigger a rapid series of events that result in Bnai Yisrael leaving Egypt.
Though at first glance it does seem strange for Moshe to react in this way… I identify with him. I too want immediate gratification. When I work up the courage to do something about a bad situation I want to see the effect immediately. Is this not what we all want, when we finally decide to help others or to counteract injustice would it not be great to know that it was our involvement that made the difference?
Though of course we all know that the world is more complex, and that such things are never easy, we often act as if this is so. What does it take to convince us to write a letter to our representatives, or to give צדקה? Though at times we may feel inspired, the feeling passes and we move on, knowing that we haven’t solved the problem, and living the same way that we did before we were aware of the cause..
In some ways, we have to do this, We can’t continue to exist if we have horrific images of death and destruction in our head all the time. The pictures and stories coming out of Haiti are horrible. But we’ve seen pictures like this before, an earthquake in Sichuan, a Tsunami in 2004. They made their impact at the time, but each disaster surprises us anew. How can we engage with such experiences and continue living our lives?
Perhaps an answer to this question can be found in Shmot Rabba (3:1): Rabbi Yehoshua HaKohen bar nehemia: When G-d appeared to Moshe, Moshe was a novice at prophecy. God said: if I reveal msyself in a loud voice, I’ll scare him, if I speak in a soft voice, he won’t take the prophecy seriously.
This is how I feel, when I hear that “loud voice.” When tragedy strikes, I am scared and put off, and I think that no matter what I do, it won’t make a difference. There is so much destruction and despair and so maybe I do something symbolic and give away an amount of money that I won’t miss, and move on with my life.
When it is a “soft voice” calling, I find it all too easy not to listen. There are so many competing causes that vie for my attention, that the quieter ones don’t just stand a chance.
The midrash ends in the following way: What did G-d do? G-d chose to use the voice of Moses’ father. And Moshe responds.
This is the key.
Family has an immediacy to which it is easier to relate. It is a call to action that seems to work. In a time of need, it helps to find a personal connection and perhaps offers us the chance to really be moved by what we see. What immediate connection might we find to an earthquake miles away? Each of us might have a different answer. Each of us has a different point of connection.
Moshe responds to the voice of his father and learns that he has been tasked with saving his people. He dutifully sets off, but even he is overwhelmed with the size of the task. Throughout the rest of the story he returns to G-d for further support and encouragement ultimately fulfilling his life’s mission.
And so it is with us.
Even when we are able to connect personally to tragedy, and we start on a path towards action, we need further encouragement and a continued source of support to face the task at hand.
May we be like Moshe, finding that connection and seeking the support and encouragement to truly make a difference in this world.