Before introducing us to Moshe, the Torah describes how Yakov’s family grew numerous and how the Egyptian government felt threatened by such a sizable population of outsiders. Determined to curb this threat, they devised a means to subjugate the Jewish People, which they slowly dialed up until it became intolerable. Once the setting is established, the Torah tells us of Moshe’s birth and upbringing before he has to flee.
On his travels, Moshe encounters God at the mysterious burning bush, and God calls on Moshe to save his people. Curiously, Moshe refuses this call:
וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי וְגַם־רָאִיתִי אֶת־הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם׃ וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵא אֶת־עַמִּי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃… וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־ה בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד־פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי׃ – “The cry of the Children of Israel has reached Me; I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come! I will send you to Paroh, and you shall free My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt.” But Moshe said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Paroh and free the Children of Israel from Egypt?”… Moshe said to God, “Please God, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (3:9-11, 4:10)
This is the beginning of one of the most epic and important stories ever told. Moshe has seen his brethren suffering, and his birth and upbringing uniquely situated him to do something about it. No less than the Creator has called on him to greatness, and he refuses; not once, but twice!
How could Moshe possibly refuse the call?
It’s essential to understand that refusing the call is not just a literary trope that humanizes the hero; because this story isn’t ordinary literature. If Moshe could refuse the call, and his refusal is part of this timeless story, it reflects a fundamental property intrinsic to all humans we need to acknowledge and understand.
It wasn’t that Moshe doubted that his people could or should be saved; it’s that Moshe doubted himself. He had fears and insecurities – he didn’t think he was worthy of such a great mission. He didn’t think he had what it takes, and he was missing what he believed to be a key trait to be successful – he wasn’t a man of words! How would he persuade anybody to follow him; or advocate the Egyptian government to let his people go? We must note that this isn’t faux humility – Moshe is expressing an accurate self-assessment. He is right! And yet, the answer seems to be that none of that matters at all.
In the Purim story, Esther also refuses the call at first, not wanting to risk her life. Mordechai gives her a similar response – she has correctly assessed the facts and is indeed in danger. But that doesn’t matter; the call to action stands open, and one person or another will take it. If Esther focuses on her fears and flaws, then she might lose the opportunity to step up, but someone else invariably will – כִּי אִם־הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית־אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם־לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.
The book of Jeremiah opens with a similar vignette. Jeremiah reports that God appeared to him and called upon him to be that generation’s prophet. Like Moshe, Jeremiah demurs that he is just a kid and isn’t a speaker. In what we now recognize as a consistent fashion, God dismisses these excuses – not because they are wrong; but because they ultimately don’t matter – וַיְהִי דְבַר־ה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר׃ בְּטֶרֶם אֶצָּרְךָ בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ וּבְטֶרֶם תֵּצֵא מֵרֶחֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּיךָ נָבִיא לַגּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ׃ וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי ה הִנֵּה לֹא־יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי־נַעַר אָנֹכִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר׃
Who is perfect enough to fix the problems you see around your community? Who is perfect enough to lead the people you love to greatness? Ironically, the person deluded and narcissistic enough to think he is perfect enough is the absolute worst candidate. The Torah seems to be saying that it has got to be you.
If we have properly honed our sensitivities, we recognize we have a lot of work to do. We might even hear a call to action in our lives vibrating deep within us, but it’s not enough. We doubt ourselves, and we refuse the call. We’re scared – and we should be! There is plenty to be scared of, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The undertaking the Torah calls us to is enormous, too enormous to accomplish on our own; yet it calls on us just the same – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
The moral fiber is in quieting that voice of self-doubt that makes us refuse the call and stepping up to answer – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.
The Torah calls on humans, keenly aware of our fears, flaws, imperfection, and insecurities. We mustn’t engage those self-same fears, flaws, imperfection, and insecurities as excuses to shirk our duty. The Torah repeatedly tells us they just don’t matter; there’s work to do!
Our pantheon of heroes is replete with imperfect individuals who had good reasons to refuse the call. Each reason was entirely accurate – we ought to draw immense comfort and power from how universal self-doubt is. The Torah’s consistent thematic response to our greats, and through them to us, echoing and reverberating for all eternity, is simply that there’s work to do, and someone has to do it.
So why shouldn’t it be you?