This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Sarah Robinson
Why was Moshe fit to lead the Jewish people? At first glance, Moshe is an unlikely choice. He was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, thus making him an outsider to the trauma of enslavement. He married Tziporah, a non-Jewess, thus compounding his remoteness from the cultural realia of the enslaved Jews. And even further, Moshe was in his eighties when he embarked on his leadership career. So why was Moshe fitting for the job?
While there are a multitude of excellent reasons why Moshe was deserving of the honor, I’d like to present a circuitous though unique approach: a peshat analysis of Ma’amad Har Sinai and Moshe’s first encounter with HaShem at the burning bush to explain why Moshe was most deserving of this honor.
In preparation for Ma’amad Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael are commanded to prepare themselves in various ways including a prohibition from touching Mount Sinai lest they suffer the death penalty as a punishment (Shemot 19:12) and during the revelation, Bnei Yisrael should climb the mountain upon hearing the sound of the shofar (Exodus 19:13).
But the Jewish People don’t follow the command as told. Upon hearing the sound of the shofar, the people respond in fear instead of going up the mountain (Exodus 19:16). And again, the shofar sound intensifies but the people respond with fear and do not go up the mountain (Exodus 19:19). What prevents them from following their command? Moshe provides G-d with a weak apologetic explaining that the people did not climb the mountain because they cognitively couldn’t undergo a paradigm shift where the mountain is forbidden and then becomes permitted (Shemot 19:23).
But here’s the rub: why can Moshe go up the mountain but Bnei Yisrael respond with fear? What makes Moshe different? The answer to this question is the key to understanding why Moshe was an excellent fit for leading the Jewish people.
The key is to have a close reading of Moshe’s thoughts and actions upon seeing the bush, his first encounter with G-d and G-dliness. It is appropriate to seek an answer from this narrative because it is thematically similar to Ma’amad Har Sinai. Both narratives occur at Har Sinai, both are revelations (though the former is a national one whereas the latter is for Moshe alone), both involve G-dly fire, and supernatural occurrences (where at Sinai there was a series of thunder and lightning, and the bush itself was a miracle because it was burning but wasn’t being consumed). Although the stories differ in that the Sinai Revelation was a planned event for which the Jewish people had advance notice and Moshe came across the Burning Bush unexpectedly, the overwhelming commonalities between the two stories justify why we can look to the story of the burning bush to answer our question.
In this narrative, Moshe happens upon the bush and reacts with pause, a daring curiosity, and reflection. He says, “I will turn aside and look and this great sight; why isn’t the bush burning?” (Shemot 3:3) It is precisely this curiosity and contemplation that indicated Moshe’s capacity for spiritual engagement, a trait which is absolutely critical as G-d’s representative on earth. And it is for that reason that the text continues with “And G-d saw that because Moshe looked, [G-d called] ‘Moshe! Moshe!’ and he said ‘Here I am.’”
So the answer to our original question is now very clear: Moshe was fit for leadership because he reacted to holiness with a daring curiosity. Clearly the bush was a litmus test to determine Moshe’s spiritual capacity, and Moshe’s response warranted G-d’s calling out to him. On the converse, the Jewish people reacted with fear upon engaging with G-dliness, implying their insufficiency for an intense face-to-face relationship with G-d.
In this is a key lesson for a Torah-observant Jew. We are Halakhic Men and Women who can view every element of our surroundings as vehicles for G-dly engagement, like our own burning bush or Ma’amad Har Sinai. We walk through a doorway and we can think about hilchot mezuzah or the korban pesach. We look at the light-fixture in the ceiling and consider whether it has the halachic status as “fire.” We consider whether the words on a computer screen have the halachic status of “writing.” The list is endless because every single element of our world can be conceptualized as a vehicle to G-dly experience. Like Moshe, it is our choice whether we want to respond with fear or daring curiosity.
Sarah Robinson is a senior in Stern College majoring in Jewish Studies and Psychology with aspirations of becoming a Yoetzet Halacha and a clinical psychologist. Sarah wants to thank Bracha Robinson and Mrs. Ora Derovan who first exposed her to this text.