At the beginning of parashat Shemot, a new Pharaoh fears the presence of the Israelites in Egypt as a potential fifth column. First he enslaves them, and when this doesn’t curb their fertility, he orders that all the Jewish baby boys be drowned.
When Moses is born, his parents hide him for three months, and then set him adrift in the Nile, hoping that some compassionate Egyptian will find the baby and let him live. Indeed, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who finds baby Moses and decides to adopt him. When Moses grows up, he goes out to see the condition of his people and winds up killing an Egyptian overseer who had been beating a Hebrew slave. Moses flees to Midian, where he finds refuge with Yitro, a local priest, and marries his daughter Tziporah.
One day, while Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, he comes to Horeb (another name for Sinai) and God speaks to him from a burning thorn bush. The Gemara in Sotah teaches:
Rabbi Yosef said: A person should always learn proper behavior from the wisdom of his Creator, as the Holy Blessed One disregarded all of the mountains and hills and rested His Divine Presence on [the lowly] Mount Sinai. And similarly [when appearing to Moses] He disregarded all of the beautiful trees and rested His Divine Presence on the bush.
According to both the Torah and the rabbis, humility was the outstanding personal characteristic of Moses. The Torah says (Numbers 12:3), “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” And so, when God addressed Moses from the bush, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then God tells Moses of his mission — he is to go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt. Moses replies, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
The dialogue continues: God reassures Moses, “I will be with you.” But Moses continues to object: the people won’t believe me or listen to me; I’m not a man of words, I don’t speak well; and finally, choose someone else.
God becomes angry with Moses’ protests — there is such a thing as being too humble, too self-effacing. And so God teaches him a lesson, that it not always acceptable to say “let someone else do it.”
When Moses insists that the people won’t believe him or listen to him, God asks, “what is that in your hand?” and Moses replies, “a staff.” Then God tells Moses to throw it on the ground and it turned into a serpent, causing Moses to retreat in fear. God then tells him to grab it by the tail and it turned back into a staff.
God says, this will be a sign that you can show to people to show them that God has in fact sent you. But it was also a sign to Moses that even his shepherd’s staff, the most mundane and insignificant of objects, could be the vehicle for a miracle.
People sometimes forget that they hold the power to do miracles in their own hands — and, just as Moses’ staff turned into a snake, when people reject or deny that power, their refusal to act can become poisonous. Surely none of us can change water to blood, split the sea, or even turn a stick into a snake, but the power of one human being is formidable. You just have to see what is in your hand, realize what needs to be done, and have the courage to act.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.