After being told of the nation’s oppression and enslavement, the story does not introduce us to an adult Moshe the redeemer, but to a young Moshe. The Torah’s cryptic inclusions are instructional as to how he came to be selected. The Midrash says that he followed a lost sheep into the wilderness, where he encountered the burning thorn bush, that wasn’t consumed:
וירא ה’ כי סר לראות ויקרא אליו אלוקים מתוך הסנה – The Lord saw that he had turned to look, and G-d called to him from within the thorn bush. (3:4)
This is the very first time he is spoken to about his special mission, to become leader extraordinaire.
The Meshech Chochma in his introduction to Sefer Shemos explains that at Sinai, Moshe was so exposed to reality that he lost his free will and became something resembling an angel. This was accomplished through his crystal clear understanding of Hashem, as it were. Before this, Moshe was an ordinary man who achieved the extraordinary.
The Torah is terse when relating the stories of Moshe before he was chosen, but includes them anyhow. There is a common denominator between the stories we are told about Moshe. Killing the Egyptian officer, reprimanding squabbling Jews, and helping the 7 daughters of Yisro are all that is in the Torah, and following a lost lamb is in the Midrash. The Torah very subtly relates to us the message about the qualities a good leader possesses.
In all 3 episodes Moshe demonstrates his care to help the weak, and willingness to step in to a fight not his. Whether Moshe saw an innocent Jew being beaten, or Jews fighting, or Yisro’s non-Jewish daughters being mistreated, or a thirsty lamb desperate for a drink; he would take action at his own risk. This was his quality and the trait Hashem identifies in him:
וירא ה’ כי סר לראות ויקרא אליו אלוקים מתוך הסנה – Hashem saw that Moshe would “turn and look” – כי סר לראות… This is why Hashem selected Moshe as our leader.
But Moshe’s response was to decline the offer to save his people. If his defining trait was to help the downtrodden, declining the opportunity to reduce them is seemingly out of character. So why did he reject the offer?
It seems that Moshe was greater than even the initial stories let on. Moshe helped people with no ulterior motives, no self-interest. So when asked to accept the title of leadership along with all the honor it carries, he turned it down. It is ultimately seen that Moshe’s protests were legitimate; Aharon was given a large chunk of the public duties as a result.
Moshe was a natural helper, a complete giver, he wanted nothing for himself in return. Protecting the weak and helpless, with genuine self sacrifice is the defining quality of a great leader. This is the type of person the Jews needed to take them from the depths of slavery to the apex of greatness.
And it’s what we need today too.