Becoming Moses: Part I*

by Josh Yarden

Or you could just free them yourself“… Or, you could just free them yourself…” This cartoon raises quite a good question. Whether you find it funny or foolish, irrelevant or irreverent, it does go to the heart of the biblical message. If the Creator of the universe wants to free Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt (or get anyone to do anything, for that matter) why send a man to do the work of a Deity? Why go to all the theatrics of lighting a bush that is not consumed by the flame in order to capture the attention of a shepherd who doesn't understand why he has been chosen to complete a seemingly impossible task?

The shepherd in the cartoon gets it: You want to free the slaves? Why waste time appearing in flaming bushes, casting ten plagues and creating high drama. Just free the slaves. The Moses in the Bible, however, finds himself in an existential crisis: Why me? How? Who will listen to me? What should I say when I myself doubt I am capable of achieving my mission? The hero is perplexed… like everyone else who ever desired to change the world, yet also realizes that the challenge may be too great.

You don't have to be a prophet or the inspired leader of a nation to ask yourself, ‘Why me? Who will listen to what I have to say?' We all ask these questions in the face of the injustices we see. Regardless of what you believe about the origin and the meaning of the Bible, grappling with oppressors and oppression is a matter for humans to deal with. The biblical narrative reinforces this idea in multiple ways, from the Garden of Eden to the River Jordan. Humans have to make it on their own, enduring the hardships of everything from childbirth to cultivating the land in order to provide food for themselves to famine, slavery and battles to be free. That's life.

Toward the end of the Exodus narrative, the text emphasizes that the answer to our troubles is not beyond our grasp. Shortly before the Israelites enter Canaan, the emancipator of slaves tells the liberated people: “This urgency that I urge you today is no more extraordinary than you, and it's not distant… not off in the skies, such that you might say, ‘Who will ascend to the skies for us, get it for us and make us listen, so we can do it?' And it is not across the sea, such that you might say, ‘Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea, get it for us and make us listen, so we can do it?' The awareness is very close to you, on your lips and in your heart, to make it happen.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

In spite of all the tales of creation and miracles, the bottom line is that humans must exercise their own agency in order to bring about change, with no assurances that our actions will be either welcome or effective, and no guarantee that our efforts won't make matters worse. That is the human condition, and it is more than enough to put one in the mindset of the shepherd in the cartoon who basically responds to other people's problems by saying: “You want me to go out of my way for something that's important to you? Yeah… go do it yourself.”

At the same time we might seek to avoid complicating our lives, there may also be a persistent voice, some irrepressible creative force of nature, an internal imperative to pursue justice. Perhaps the essential message of the Five Books of Moses is that we humans alone are responsible for straitening out our complicated relationships. The text was written by, for and about people who are, like Moses, at times embroiled in conflict and other times alone in the wilderness… at times it seems that we are at once in both situations.

The incident of the burning bush transpires when Moses is alone in the wilderness, grazing sheep, soon after the birth of his son. He has just named him Gershom, a rather strange name meaning ‘alien there,' because he himself was an outsider in Egypt. The birth of his child has drawn him back into the predicament from which he previously escaped. He is part of a long chain of generations, now trapped in slavery. He realizes that although he has extricated himself from Egypt, he cannot be truly free while his people are still there. It slowly dawns on him that he must go back.

Moses sees the proverbial light in the form of an actual burning bush, or so it seems. The metaphysical flame does not consume the physical plant. The stage is now set, and the rest of the Exodus narrative will play out in alternate scenes, some taking place in the labrynth within his own mind, others through the complex relationships he has with others. The shepherd in the cartoon chooses the low road, thinking of his own convenience. The biblical Moses chooses the high road, in a sort of dialogue with the imperative to pursue justice. He will rise and fall, challenge and defeat Pharaoh, ascend Mt. Sinai and purge the members of the cult of the golden calf, lead the way forward and confront Amalek, bring the Israelites to look across the Jordan into Canaan and end his days on Mt. Nevo, having achieved a great deal, yet still falling short of the dream he has pursued.

* Upcoming entries in this column will examine brief sections of the Exodus narrative in close detail, with particular attention paid to the ambiguous and poetic ancient Hebrew language, and to the humanistic nature of the text.