Parashat Vaera Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2-9:35
If I were to write a subtitle for this week's parashah / Torah reading, it would be: "This Isn't as Easy as It Looks."
We are familiar with the phenomenon of Moses's self-doubt: Three chapters ago, at the iconic moment at the burning bush, God described the mission that will shape the rest of Moses's life. Moses's immediate response was: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring out the children of Israel from Egypt?" (Sh'mot/Exodus 3:11)
God's response is: "I will be with you." In other words, "don't worry, you've got the ultimate team leader to guide you, to inspire you. I've got your back."
And off Moses goes, back to Egypt.
At the opening of this week's Torah reading, God presents Moses with his first script. Tell the Israelites: "I am Adonay. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob . . . and I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan . . . and I shall take you to Me as a people, and I shall become your God, and you'll know that I am Adonay, your God, who is bringing you out from under Egypt's burdens. . . . " (6:3,4,7)
Do you know what happens when Moses delivers the message?
"...they did not listen to Moses. . ." (6:9) And although you'd think God would have followed the conversation, Moses reports back: Here, the children of Israel didn't listen to me, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?!" (6:12)
And sure enough, armed with a repertoire of wonders, besting Pharaoh's magicians trick for trick, Moses and Aaron present God's message:
"And Pharaoh's heart was strong, and he did not listen to them--as Adonay had spoken." (7:13)
In preparing Moses, and Aaron, for their leadership roles in this enterprise of extracting the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God has prepared the brothers for Pharaoh's resistance.
But, from the evidence of the text itself it seems as though the Israelite resistance to God's message is a surprise. We might assume that a bona fide message by a hand-picked messenger would carry a lot of weight. That has to be the ultimate confidence-booster for the person delivering the message. And yet, neither the Israelites, nor Pharaoh, listen to Moses.
Credibility is a tremendous issue when it comes to leadership. This week's Torah reading sheds light on a number of issues relating to leaders, their message and who listens to them.
We come to understand that even a human being armed with the greatest truth in the world feels self-doubt when the moment of standing in the spotlight arrives.
We come to understand that it is crucial to understand the reality of the people who are meant to take in the message.
We come to understand that it is much easier to dismiss a not-readily understood message than to stretch to understand it.
There should have been no greater natural alliance than that of Moses and the Israelites, joined together by their relationship to the God of their ancestors and bound to each other by the goal of leaving Egyptian slavery behind them.
Moses and God missed one crucial step: taking the time to build trust. God has a history with this people: "I am Adonay. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob . . . and I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan . . . " but this generation does not know God the way Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did. Moses has no history with this people: he was removed from this community at birth and reappears to them speaking like an Egyptian noble. With 20/20 hindsight, it is easy for us to posit the missing step . . . taking time to build experiences together, learning to speak the same language, building a collective history.
Moses and God might have felt that they didn't have the luxury of time to build that trust . . . there was a small window of opportunity to get the plagues delivered and to redeem the people. The course of events would, of course, prove that Moses was a credible leader and the truth he delivered was indeed God's truth.
Those of us who react to a new message by shutting out the message . . . and the messenger . . . might look with some humility at our Israelite ancestors and choose to allow for the possibility that we are being delivered of a truth we had never considered before.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.