20210109 Parsha Shemot – Who Am I
Today we find ourselves still in the Land of Egypt but change is in the air. Today we begin the story of the Exodus. This Parsha begins with a list of Jacob’s sons who entered into Egypt and died in Egypt. It continues by setting the stage for why Bnei Israel wants to leave Egypt. We are introduced to Moses who escaped infanticide and eventually led God’s people to freedom.
Moses led a life of luxury but after identifying with his own people, he killed an Egyptian and had to flee to Midian. He met and married Zipporah and they lived a decent life in Midian. One day Moses was herding sheep and encountered the famous burning bush. God spoke to Moses that day, but Moses also asked a couple of questions.
Moses’ second question to God at the burning bush was, Who are you? “So I will go to the Israelites and say, ‘Your fathers’ God sent me to you.’ They will immediately ask me what His name is. What shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3: 13). God’s reply, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” wrongly translated in almost every Christian Bible as something like “I am that I am.”
His first question, though, was, Mi anochi, “Who am I?” (Ex. 3: 11).
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” said Moses to God. “And how can I possibly get the Israelites out of Egypt?” On the surface the meaning is clear. Moses is asking two things. The first: who I am to be worthy of so great a mission? The second: how can I possibly succeed?
God answers the second. “Because I will be with you.” You will succeed because I am not asking you to do it alone. I am not really asking you to do it at all. I will be doing it for you. I want you to be My representative, My mouthpiece, My emissary and My voice.
God never answered the first question. Perhaps in a strange way Moses answered himself. In Tanakh as a whole, the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all.
The prophet Isaiah, when charged with his mission, said, ‘I am a man of unclean lips’ (Is. 6:5). Jeremiah said, ‘I cannot speak, for I am a child’ (Jer. 1: 6). David, Israel’s greatest king, echoed Moses’ words, ‘Who am I?’ (2 Samuel 7: 18). Jonah, sent on a mission by God, tried to run away. According to Rashbam, Jacob was about to run away when he found his way blocked by the man/angel with whom he wrestled at night (Rashbam to Gen. 32: 23).
The heroes of the Bible are not figures from Greek or any other kind of myth. They are not people possessed of a sense of destiny, determined from an early age to achieve fame. They do not have what the Greeks called megalopsychia, a proper sense of their own worth, a gracious and lightly worn superiority. They did not go to Eton or Oxford. They were not born to rule. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes of the moral life against their will. There was work to be done – God told them so – and they did it. It is almost as if a sense of smallness is a sign of greatness. Rav Shaul, (the apostle Paul) spoke of this concept.
2 Corinthians 12:10 For Messiah’s sake, then, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in distresses, in persecutions, in calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
So, God never answered Moses’ question, “Why me?”
But there is another question within the question. “Who am I?” can be not just a question about worthiness. It can also be a question about identity. Moses, alone on Mount Horeb/Sinai, summoned by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, is not just speaking to God when he says those words. He is also speaking to himself. “Who am I?”
There are two possible answers. The first: Moses is a prince of Egypt. He had been adopted as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter. He had grown up in the royal palace. He dressed like an Egyptian, looked and spoke like an Egyptian. When he rescued Jethro’s daughters from some rough shepherds, they go back and tell their father, “An Egyptian saved us” (2: 19). His very name, Moses, was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2: 10). It was, presumably, an Egyptian name (in fact, Mses, as in Ramses, is the ancient Egyptian word for “child”. The etymology given in the Torah, that Moses means “I drew him from the water,” tells us what the word suggested to Hebrew speakers). So the first answer is that Moses was an Egyptian prince.
The second Mosaic identity was that he was a Midianite. For, although he was Egyptian by upbringing, he had been forced to leave. He had made his home in Midian, married a Midianite woman Zipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest and was “content to live” there, quietly as a shepherd. We tend to forget that he spent many years there. He left Egypt as a young man and was already eighty years old at the start of his mission when he first stood before Pharaoh (Ex. 7: 7). He must have spent the overwhelming majority of his adult life in Midian, far away from the Israelites on the one hand and the Egyptians on the other. Moses was a Midianite.
So when Moses asks, “Who am I?” it is not just that he feels himself unworthy. He feels himself uninvolved. He may have been one of God’s Chosen People by birth, but he had not suffered the fate of his people. He had not grown up as a Hebrew. He had not lived among Hebrews. He had good reason to doubt that the Israelites would even recognize him as one of them. How, then, could he become their leader? More penetratingly, why should he even think of becoming their leader? Their fate was not his. He was not part of it. He was not responsible for it. He did not suffer from it. He was not implicated in it.
What is more, the one time he had actually tried to intervene in their affairs – he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who had killed an Israelite slave, and the next day tried to stop two Israelites from fighting one another – his intervention was not welcomed. “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” they said to him. These are the first recorded words of an Israelite to Moses. He had not yet dreamed of being a leader and already his leadership was being challenged.
Consider, now, the choices Moses faced in his life. On the one hand he could have lived as a prince of Egypt, in luxury and at ease. That might have been his fate had he not intervened. Even afterward, having been forced to flee, he could have lived out his days quietly as a shepherd, at peace with the Midianite family into which he had married. It is not surprising that when God invited him to lead the Israelites to freedom, he resisted.
Why then did he accept? Why did God know that he was the man for the task? One hint is contained in the name he gave his first son. He called him Gershom because, he said, “I am a stranger in a foreign land” (2: 22). He did not feel at home in Midian. That was where he was but not who he was.
But the real clue is contained in an earlier verse, the prelude to his first intervention. “When Moses was grown, he began to go out to his own people, and he saw their hard labor” (2: 11). These people were his people. He may have looked like an Egyptian but he knew that ultimately he was not. It was a transforming moment, not unlike when the Moabite Ruth said to her Israelite mother in law Naomi, “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16). Ruth was un-Jewish by birth. Moses was un-Jewish by upbringing. But both knew that they, when they saw suffering and identified with the sufferer, they could not walk away.
Who am I? asked Moses, but in his heart he knew the answer. I am not Moses the Egyptian or Moses the Midianite. When I see my people suffer I am, and cannot be other than, Moses the Jew. And if that imposes responsibilities on me, then I must shoulder them. For I am who I am because my people are who they are.
Who are you today? I believe that to be an important question that each of us should be prepared to answer. In the days, weeks, months to come life will become increasingly difficult for those who believe in Yeshua HaMashiach. We are beginning to see signs of persecution against God’s people. In other parts of the world, it is much worse. In France they have recently outlawed the ritual slaughter of animals. That means no more kosher meat for Jews in France. China has started identifying Christian churches and destroying their buildings. Believers in Nigeria are in an existential struggle with the Muslim extremist group Boco Haram. I could go on with examples from around the globe, but you get the picture.
We need to be prepared to defend our faith with our lives if need be. I believe it will come to that in this country. We need to know deep down inside us “Who Am I”? We need to be prepared to give an account as to Who we serve.
God called Moses to be a leader. Then in the course of the Exodus he delegated authority and leadership down to leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. The tens being basically a family unit. We are all called to be leaders. In whatever capacity we find ourselves we need to be leaders, in our jobs, schools, communities, and families. It is imperative that we step up and be leaders, not simple-minded followers who blindly follow every foolish whim of government, media, Hollywood, and professional sports. They are not our leaders. We should be following the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We should be keeping the commandments of God.
Yeshua said in John 14:15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. Yeshua is our leader. In Him we find our identity. That’s where we should begin and end in our search for who we are.
I end with returning to the title of this sermon. Who Am I? Only you can answer that. We can be more than what we are. We need to take up the mantle of leadership wherever we are and in whatever capacity we find ourselves. Leaders lead.