from the heart of jerusalem

Shemot: Partnering with G-d


It was late in the day. Dark had fallen, and people headed home after work. Theodore was on his way to his hotel room with a few hours’ work ahead on the typewriter he had brought from Vienna. There was much to write about, and the day had made him uncomfortable, though he could not put his finger on why.

He was covering the espionage trial of a young captain in the French army accused of passing top-secret information to Germany. It was December 1894, and the winds of war were blowing in Europe. Tensions were high.

All eyes were on the trial, which Theodore Herzl’s paper had dispatched him to cover. The French had suspected a high-placed leak in the army for some time, and recent events had confirmed it. The trial should have been about whether there was evidence that Alfred Dreyfus was indeed the spy, but Herzl noticed far too much attention being paid in court to the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish. And it was beginning to make him extremely uncomfortable.

Neither Dreyfus nor Herzl viewed themselves as Jews first; Judaism was to them simply ancestry they possessed, an accident of birth that played little role in who they were or who they wanted to be. But the French crowds did not see it that way.

As he walked in Paris that evening, Herzl saw a few fellows dressed in religious Jewish garb. Some Frenchmen noticed them too, and began to taunt them with epithets. A crowd soon gathered, surrounding the hapless Jews and shouting “Mort aux Juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”

More than the beating that ensued, what shocked Herzl most was how many of the Frenchmen in the mob seemed like middle-class citizens. In that moment, he would later recall, he understood there was no future for the Jews of Europe. And in that moment, a dream was born: it was time for the Jews to have a state of their own. 

Most people would have left it there, but Herzl began a worldwide campaign for the creation of a Jewish homeland in the territory then known as Palestine.

It would take fifty years and untold tragedy and horror for the Jews of Europe before his dream would finally be realized, and one wonders what might have been had the Jews listened to Herzl half a century earlier.

Someone once remarked to me that if Herzl had been religious, we might not yet have a state, because he would have simply walked home with a heavy heart, trusting G-d to save the Jewish people.

Where lies the balance between our trust in G-d and our responsibility to act?

This week’s portion of Shemot offers a fascinating opportunity to consider this question.

Moshe escaped Egypt under threat of death after killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Jewish slave. Like Herzl, Moshe the Egyptian prince quickly discovered that to the rest of the world, he was just a Jew. For forty years he found an idyllic life as a shepherd, married into a Midianite family, until one day, out with his flock, he spied something unusual: a bush burning, but somehow not being consumed.

G-d could have set an entire mountain range on fire to make His point. Why a lowly bush? Perhaps the message was more to the point: the Jewish people, no matter how downtrodden and how on the verge of destruction, will never be consumed.

And for Moshe himself, perhaps it was a message that there is a fire of injustice that still burns, the suffering of the Jewish people as enslaves, and something had to be done.

All of which leads us to the dramatic, confounding dialogue between G-d and Moshe at the burning bush. G-d tells Moshe it is time at last for the Jews to be redeemed, and Moshe is His choice to do it. He tells Moshe to leave Midian and journey back to Egypt to redeem the Jewish people. And Moshe … disagrees? 

For twenty-nine verses (Shemot 3:11-4:17) Moshe debates G-d, and G-d goes along with the discussion, responding to each of Moshe’s challenges — until the fourth: “I am not a man of words … for I am heavy of speech and tongue” (ibid 4:10).

G-d responds (ibid. v. 11-12) “Who has made man’s mouth? … Go! … I will be with your mouth and teach you what to say!”

To which Moshe logically responds: “Send whoever you decide,” which some suggest is a reference to Aharon.

And at this point, G-d finally shows anger. “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he knows how to speak!”

A bizarre dialogue, to say the least.

In truth, Moshe seems correct: Hashem can perform miracles, allowing Moshe to speak eloquently despite his stutter. But in that case, why does He need Moshe at all? If G-d’s miracles are the vehicle through which the Jews will be released, why is anyone necessary? Certainly Moshe is not essential to the task; the redemption is entirely dependent on G-d’s will.

One might even suggest that this dialogue is frames a much larger question: why are we here at all? Why does G-d need anything we do?

I have wondered how the greatest leader the Jewish people had ever known could ignore his people’s suffering and retire to Midian for an idyllic life as a shepherd. How could he run from Egypt simply because Pharaoh sentenced him to death? Where was Moshe’s faith?

But perhaps Moshe he had too much faith. What if Moshe, upon hearing his death sentence, assumed that G-d wanted him to leave Egypt? After all, Hashem certainly does not need him to redeem the Jewish people, and there is no reason for Moshe to worry or make an effort. When G-d is ready to set them free, He will.

Sound familiar? What need is there for us to work for a living, or serve in the Israeli army? If Hashem wants the state to be born and our borders to be protected, does He really need our help?  

This is the fatal flaw in Moshe’s position. Because Hashem wants us to know how much we do matter. Just because He can perform miracles does not mean we are meant to depend on them! If we are meaningless before G-d, then why are we here? 

G-d clearly wants us to be partners in making a better world, and only when we have done our part have we earned the right to depend on His miraculous salvation. Interestingly, Moshe is almost killed by G-d for not circumcising his son (ibid. 4:24-26), and circumcision represents the idea that we are created incomplete and are meant to be partners in improving the world.

Hidden in this dialogue is G-d’s greatest desire for us: to be His partners.

Way back in the story of creation, the Torah has Hashem say: “Let us make man in our image” (Bereishit 1:26). And one wonders: to whom is G-d speaking? 

Rav Soleveitchik suggests that Hashem is speaking to man himself! Every day, Hashem is saying to each and every one of us: “I want you to be a partner with me, in the creation of you, every single day.”

Herzl understood that while the task may be great, and the work hard and long, we are not, are never, free to desist from our part in getting it done. 

Moshe’s role in the redemption of the Jewish people challenges us to ask ourselves: how will we be partners in redeeming our own world today, so that our children will inherit a better one tomorrow?

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.