Parashat Shemot

R. Noa Kushner // Parashat Shemot 5778

So I am teaching Torah Love, which is what we call the bar / bat mitzvah class
with kids and parents.
You know why we call it that?
Because I know they will have their beautiful b’nai mitzvah, but we want them to
know why, we want them to love Torah.
So I am teaching them, happens to be this week’s parasha, parashat shmot, and
Moshe is at the burning bush/
And I ask the class what questions they have about the story.
(The whole class, the whole secret to loving Torah is finding great questions.)
And, one by one, each kid asks some version of, “Why was Moses chosen?”
“What makes Moses special?”
“What makes Moses, Moses?”
And so on.

And I have admit that I was worried, like why were all the kids so focused on
what made Moshe extraordinary? Didn’t they have a single question about God
or the burning bush or slavery or what it would take to free the Israelites?

Were we all now hopelessly doomed to think only about ourselves and our own
qualities and what makes us special so we could all promote ourselves?
Was this somehow Trump’s fault?

I went home a little defeated.
But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the rabbis had the same

The rabbis also wanted to know, “Why Moshe?”

Because, when you read the story, you can’t help but think, whether you are
Rashi in the 11 th century or a 7 th grader in Kitchen’s Kitchen Torah love class:

What could God possibly see in this guy?

Let’s look at Moshe together.
He’s wandering in the midbar / in the wilderness, with only the sheep, having
imaginary conversations with all people whom he despises --
(You think you have parent issues, Moshe’s step dad was PHARAOH)
-- Moshe is out there having imaginary conversations with his enemies, that they
deserve his fury doesn’t matter, because Moshe hasn’t done anything except
hate them.

Okay, we should give Moses at least some credit for leaving the palace, the
place of security and wealth. And Moses was willing to cut ties with those around
him who think slavery is just the way it has to be.
But still, he is all negation and no plan, he does not risk anything in himself in
order to build something.

And so the rabbis search for the answers:
Why Moshe?
Maybe he has, as my father R. Lawrence Kushner has taught, the patience to
see the slow miracle, that the bush was on fire but not consumed. If you have
ever watched a fire you know it takes some time, shows persistence.

Or maybe, as my friend R. David Kasher taught from Exodus Rabbah taught this
week, by turning to look, Moshe demonstrated he can see an inkling of a
something, he can see what is not yet there.

Or maybe, as I have taught, it is not only that Moshe stops, he asks maduah /
why? “Why is it that the bush does not burn up?”
It is because he asks “Why,” the question that opens the possibility that maybe,
there is another way – this is why he is chosen. Because Moshe knows that
things don’t have to be as they are.

But, actually, after thinking about it this year, I think the exact point is that Moshe
was...not much overall.

Let’s put it this way: If Moses was indeed destined from the beginning, even if he
had something innate, then so far he wasn’t capable of demonstrating it with any
particular aplomb.

He’s kind of a mess, actually.
We could say he is a recluse, still running from something that happened
decades ago.

In fact, in this less charitable reading, Moses is operating on such a basic level
that God has to resort to Vegas style pyrotechnics to even get the conversation

Remember God doesn’t have to make any miracles to get the attention of
anyone else who is important. So far, God just sort of calls out to them and they
talk back, ready. In fact, the midwives don’t need any word from God at all.
And the miracle itself, not to be disrespectful, but it is kind of starter level – not
exactly seas splitting, you know?

Just a lowly bush that is burning, and even the rabbis have wondered – why
didn’t the miracle happen in something a little more dignified? A nice palm tree?
(Shir Hashirim Rabba 3:10).

Not to mention, famously, God has to keep asking Moshe to get involved,
promising him divine protection, all kinds of tricks and proofs, over and over and
over. It gets to the point where God becomes furious in the face of Moshe’s
repeated refusals and self-negation, his abdication of responsibility, God gets
furious that Moshe can’t begin to play the role, let alone own it.

Moshe seems at the very least, an unlikely partner.

Not to mention, as Dena Weiss taught this week (Machon Hadar weekly Torah
on Shemot), Moshe is not the only one in this scene who is at a low point in his
career. Up until now, God has only been playing in the local theaters, if you know
what mean.

This next chapter is about to be God’s national tour with world changing
consequences. So all conditions point to God need to pick the most eager, able

Which only makes the scene more confusing, more confounding: If Moshe is so
recalcitrant, why Moshe at all?

I mean, okay, I’ll grant that obviously Torah seems to have Moshe in mind from
the start, we follow Moshe’s story closely from the time he was born all the way
through his early life.

But I still think there is something significant in the fact that at this moment the
whole thing could go either way. It could be a story about a baby who was born,
hidden in a basket in the Nile, raised in the palace and who ran away. God says
To Moshe: “Tell Pharoah, ‘Let my people go,’ and Moshe says, “No.” God picks a
more willing partner, the end.

So why does God stick with Moshe? Why is it important that the hero be
underwhelming at the start?

Because Moshe is like most of us.
We, too are born in conditions we did not choose.
We, too are raised in places and countries and contexts where the values seem
obviously, hopelessly, endlessly corrupt.
We, too, handle things inconsistently.
We, too, can feel like we are wandering in the wilderness, having accomplished
almost nothing.

We, too, in response to the calls of suffering, can still catch ourselves saying, “Mi
Anochi?” / “Who am I to try and fix it?” And, “What if they don’t believe me?” We
too, can hear ourselves staying, just like Moshe, “I just don’t have the tools. I
don’t even have the beginning of the beginning of what I might need.”

We, too, can imagine ourselves saying,
“Send someone else. Make it someone else. Please. Anyone else.”

Because we too, have not always figured out how to move from the outsider or
the critic to the active protagonist in our own stories, let alone the stories of our
communities, and our time.

So the question for us this Shabbat, in this moment in our country’s history, is
not, will we hear the call, for those calls to step up and wake up and stay awake
and be agitated and angry are now ricocheting around the globe it seems from
each and every corner at a rapid fire pace, unlike the subtle burning bush, the
calls now are unavoidable, they are like a hailstorm, and I dare say there is not
one of us who has not heard at least a few.

No, the question is not about hearing the call,
The question is Moshe’s question: Will we step forward?
Will we, intentionally or begrudgingly, Judaism doesn’t much care, will we
generate the modicum of necessary continual strength to step in the ring and
Will we have the discipline to respond?

Will the story of the Exodus, the facing down of oppressors and freeing of the
oppressed, end with one insecure, uncomfortably relatable shepherd who says
no again and again?
Or can he, can we, put whatever it is aside and realize all our neuroticism and
grand planning and ego gymnastics cannot take the place of one regular and
serious commitment?

And for those of us who don’t know what the action should be, I am here to tell
you that agonizing about the best way to act is just a higher level of
Talking about it, even sermonizing about it, just isn’t enough.

You, I, we each have to do one thing with regularity. Sincerity is appreciated, but
if we wait until we are sincere we may never do it, so the tradition says, go ahead
and do it, don’t wait for angels to sing.

And if we are at a loss for where to start we can, like 120 Kitchen-ites are doing,
start going to Glide (in fact 15 Kitchen-ites were there this morning serving
breakfast), we can join up with a group like Bend the Arc that is organizing for
criminal justice reform in California, we could work to figure out how to win the
next election (find Kitchen-ite Robert Fram, he has a plan). There’s no shortage
of ways to donate the amount of time or money equivalent to the corners of our
fields, and we can help you, this is what it means to do Jewish, to be part of the
larger camaraderie of the decent.

You see it is not only Moses who is standing and listening, we are standing.
And the calls are nonstop, the evidence is mounting, the Pharoah is not getting
any weaker by our absence, and God is losing patience.

So, really, the question is only if will we have the discipline to sacrifice our
comfort or convenience or relationships or status or security in order to do what’s
needed with regularity in order to bring about a world in which we want to live.

You see, after all this divine arguing and negotiating, it’s funny, Moses never
says, “Yes.” Never says, “Okay, God, you win.” Instead, Moses only starts the
work of making arrangements: He asks his father in law for permission to go to
Egypt, he gets on the road, he tells his brother what they are about to do, they

Moses never says, “Yes,” I think, because he never feels ready.
Rather, it is only once Moshe starts acting the part can he grow into being
sometimes, mostly ready.

R. Arnold Jacob Wolf, z”l wrote: “Freud meant us when he said that words do not
express so much as suppress, that only acts can dissipate ambivalence.” (Arnold
Jacob Wolf, Unfinished Rabbi, p. 87).

So in the end, Moses, against all his better instincts, never says “Yes,” never
says anything to end that conversation with God, but instead, puts on his sandals
again and goes back to the palace where it all started, he goes to the very place
he does not want to go and is not welcome.

But something about the fact that he gets out of his head and out of the
something about the fact that in spite of all of it he goes,
something about that act is so powerful it reverberates around the world and
back again.

And because of those acts for once, the oppressors do not automatically win.
And because of those acts for once, brute force does not automatically rule the

The changes don’t happen quickly or efficiently, the leaving of Egypt and the
beginning of freedom is messy, messier, more costly than anyone could’ve ever

But make no mistake, the moment when Moses drags himself begrudgingly onto
the scene and into action, he makes just enough room for God and justice to
enter the world once again.