“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” says, Moses in Exodus (3:11).
When do we like Moses say to ourselves, “Who am I to…?” When do we anticipate how we think others will respond to us and let that influence our behaviors? How much human potential are we withholding because we doubt ourselves and our qualifications?
This week’s Torah reading opens with, “V’elu ha d’varim asher diber Moshe….” These are the words that Moses spoke…” The plural noun d’varim, words, things that have been spoken and the verb, diber, spoke, are related to each other sharing the same root although the ‘v’ sounds changes to a ‘b’ sound for grammatical reasons.
As the journey through the wilderness nears its end, Moses has thoughts, reflections and advice to share with the Israelites. In some ways it is like the long version of a parent sharing parting words with children as they head out for an evening. It’s an elaboration of the phrase, “Be good, and behave.”
How ironic to have a the book D’varim (Deuteronomy) in the Hebrew, named for the many words Moses speaks in these chapters when it was Moses who forty years earlier said, “lo ish d’varim ani,” “I have never been a man of words…” (Exodus 4:10). Moses has grown from being a man of a few words to being an accomplished leader sermonizing his people before he sends them forward into the world without him.
Reading Moses in D’varim, one might wonder: why did Moses initially hesitate to be the leader of the people? Why did he question his value or qualifications?
I wonder if it was because he thought being a leader meant something different that the leader he would be.
Perhaps growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, he thought a leader needed to be someone who stood with confidence, spoke loudly and with authority. He didn’t anticipate when he would turn to God and invoke maternal imagery as a metaphor for his leadership, the burden of carrying the Israelites (Numbers 11:12-13) “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant’….”
Moses couldn’t foresee how much time he’d spend saving the Israelites from God’s wrath by appealing to God’s compassionate side. Nor could he have imagined a leader who could calm God’s anger. He couldn’t imagine a powerful leadership that different from the power of the Pharaoh.
Maybe when God chose a shepherd who cared for each of his flock, a man who demonstrated caring and nurturing, God also taught us that an open heart is more powerful that any of the other characteristics that we tend to associate with leaders.
Maybe, when we hear Moses speak after 40 years of wandering, maybe we are also invited to find inspiration in the story of someone who didn’t think he could, but did.