parashat Shemot

The book of Exodus begins with race hatred, forced slavery, infanticide, adult murder, and a fugitive hero. The runaway Moses finds comfort in the desert with the family of Jethro a priest of Midian, whose daughters were themselves being ill-treated by some itinerant shepherds while trying to draw water for their flock. In a moment of high romance Moses single-handedly stood up the shepherds and helped the girls draw the water they needed, and so was taken into the family and looked after, marrying Zipporah and fathering two sons. 

It could have happened that the story of Moses effectively ended here – keeping the flock of Jethro, a much appreciated son in law for a man with seven daughters – but for the event that followed. While out one day with the sheep, nowhere very special, Moses noticed a bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed by it. Bush fires can’t have been all that uncommon in the dry hot desert. Yet Moses watched this one for enough time to recognise that it was unusual. And once he recognised that something else was happening, so it was that God spoke to him, telling him that the cry of the Israelites had reached the heavens, that God was going to re-enter history and rescue the people of Israel from the Egyptians and take them back to their own land, and that Moses was going to be his agent, speaking both to Pharaoh and to the Jews.

All very dramatic. All rather terrifying – particularly to the lone boy who had fled Egypt from a murder charge, who had grown up in an Egyptian Royal Household, who was living at the whim of others. How was he to believe it was God talking to him? How was he to convince others that God had spoken? How could he face a return to Egypt to try to persuade a Pharaoh he already knew would not believe him, to let the Hebrew slaves go?

Small wonder that Moses doubts. And demurs. And really doesn’t want to get involved. Even with the addition of two more signs – a stick that turns into a serpent, a hand that becomes leprously white then healthily pink – and the promise of more, Moses is reluctant. Not me – I’m not very articulate…

It is, when you think about it, a very odd meeting. Where has God been all these years? Was God around but simply not noticed?

Why choose a bush in the wilderness in which to make a statement? Why choose someone so naïve and young and frightened and just a little bit anxious, someone from the very fringes of the community, someone who had been given away because being within the community seemed just too dangerous? Just what was it in Moses that God recognised as being the necessary characteristic for leadership? Just what was it at the bush that Moses stopped to ponder – what really did he see and understand?

Many years ago my teacher Jonathan Magonet asked – how long would you have to look at a bonfire before you realised it wasn’t actually burning up? It was an illuminating question. Moses must have demonstrated an ability to watch, to focus, to be patient, to contemplate the unimaginable, for him to have noticed that the burning bush wasn’t actually being consumed.

More even than the willingness to take the time, more even than the ability to focus and to observe, I think it is the ability to imagine the indescribable that marks out Moses for leadership. He was able to think differently, to see in the normal and everyday occurrences something special and manifestly other, beyond what simply is. It is, it think no surprise that when asked for the name of the divinity that Moses must pass on to the people the name is “ehyeh asher ehyeh” “I will be whatever I will be.”

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see Moses not as the great leader of rabbinic tradition – we see a young and fragile man, emotional, dislocated, upstanding, and fearful. We see someone who could be great – he has demonstrated his sense of moral outrage, his willingness to act out his values, his affinity with his people, his support of the daughters of Jethro against injustice. And we see someone who could be a bit of a nebbish – full of doubts, a little bit unclear as to his identity, afraid, sensing himself as a continual outsider, with no obvious vision for himself or his future. He is someone we can recognise in our modern context.

True leadership requires not only vision, motivation, focus, and passion, it also requires someone with emotional intelligence, the ability to understand more than the current and obvious scenario, the willingness to do something not immediately clear or comprehensible to those around you. It means being rooted in the history or the culture of your place but not being held back by it, it means being open to whatever presents itself.

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