Parashat Shemot tells the story of the early life of Moses. We learn that he was saved from Pharaoh’s decree that all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed, that when he grew up he went out to see the condition of his people, that he wound up killing an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave, and that he fled to Midian, where he took refuge with Yitro and married Yitro’s daughter Tzippora.
One day, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he comes to Mount Horeb and God speaks to him from a burning thornbush: “Come…I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.”
Moses doesn’t exactly jump at the opportunity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” God promises that He will be with Moses and that his mission will succeed.
But Moses objects again: The people will ask me Your name and I don’t know it. God reassures Moses again, but Moses continues to object: What if the Israelites don’t believe me? So God gives Moses signs that he can use to prove to his people that God really did appear to him.
Still, Moses raises yet another objection: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
By this point, God is starting to get annoyed and He rejects this objection as well: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” God tells Moses, I know all about your limitations, but I will not allow you to use them as an excuse to refuse the mission for which I have appointed you.
At the very beginning of our parasha, Moses’ mother — hoping to save her infant son from Pharaoh’s decree that all Hebrew baby boys were to be drowned — places him in a basket in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile to bathe and sees the basket. She has her maid retrieve it, finds the baby, and decides to adopt him.
The verse says, “She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl — amata — to fetch it.” But the Talmud in Sotah records a debate between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiah in which one understands the word amata as “her slave girl” and the other understands it to mean “her arm,” arguing that the word amah certainly means slave girl, but it can also mean “cubit,” a unit of measure equal to the length of a man’s forearm — hence, “she stretched forth her arm.” Rashi comments that she stretched out her arm which, by miraculous means, extended to where the child was.
The Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk asked:
Why did Pharaoh’s daughter bother to stretch forth her arm, when it was quite obvious that only by a miracle could it reach the child? How did she know that a miracle would take place? From this, though, we have proof that when one has a mitzva to perform, he should attempt to do so without making all types of calculations as to feasibility.
God had no patience for Moses’ objection — I am not a man of words. It’s as if God were saying, OK, so you have a disability, I know all about it, but that doesn’t mean you can refuse to try.
Everybody has limitations. Some are physical, others are psychological; some are emotional, others are financial. No human being is perfect, no one is without difficulties. There is nothing easier than to say, “I have this problem, so I can’t possibly do this, that, or the other thing.” But God says, I’m not interested in “can’t.” I want to see what you can do, because you can do more than you think.
It’s true, you may fail. You may not be successful in what you set out to accomplish — but that’s no reason not to try. Perhaps other people will see you struggling and come to help. Perhaps your initial efforts will allow you to see another approach to your task. Or perhaps you will be the recipient of a miracle.
“I can’t, don’t ask me” isn’t an option — for how do you know if you never try?