"The Finding of Moses" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904
"The Finding of Moses" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904

Moses, superheroes, day school — and accepting that anyone can be a hero


Shemot

Exodus 1:1–6:1

Isaiah 27:6–28:13; 29:22-23 (Ashkenazi)

Jeremiah 1:1–2:3 (Sephardic)


My 5-year-old son recently completed a unit on superheroes in his kindergarten class at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.

While his wise and talented teachers used the topic to integrate general and Jewish studies, my son was thrilled to share with me his two main takeaways: One, he created a superhero named Ice Man (who can freeze things, logically), and two, we all can be superheroes.

We can all be heroes. What wise words from a 5-year-old.

If only someone had told Moses.

In Parashat Shemot, Moses does not see himself as a hero. He doesn’t even see himself as a leader. He questions God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). He worries about whether others will listen to him (Exodus 4:1). He offers excuses. Hoping that God will choose someone else to lead the Israelites to freedom, he says, “I have never been a man of words” (Exodus 4:10).

The rabbis debate Moses’ hesitation. The rabbinic interpretations of Exodus Rabbah insist that Moses was sincerely humble. He believed he wasn’t capable, that he was not the right man for the job.

Rashi disagrees. It wasn’t that Moses didn’t think he was capable. The problem was that Moses didn’t have enough faith. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, takes a different approach. He wrote that Moses was a hard-line realist. Moses saw that the mission was impossible, and knew he wouldn’t be able to complete it.

Our tradition does not settle on which sage is right and which is wrong. However, unlike a wise kindergartener I know, none of these rabbis suggests that that heroic potential is waiting deep within each one of us.

There is no place in kindergarten for hard-line realism or humility. Kindergarten is about hopes and dreams. Children believe that they will change the world, because they still believe they can.

As my son learns about Moses, this is what I hope he learns. We can all be heroes. We all should be heroes — even if we have doubts, and even if we don’t think we can.

There is no place in kindergarten for hard-line realism or humility. Kindergarten is about hopes and dreams.

I want Jewish children to learn the words of the Pirkei Avot:

Eizeh hu gibor? Hakovesh et yitzro. Who is a hero? One who controls his passions (4:1). In other words, not only can you be to be heroic, but each of us can make the daily choice to be heroic as we walk our personal path toward good.

I would rather our children focus not on the part of the story where Moses talks to God, but on the moments before.

I want them to imagine themselves walking through the desert, feeling the hot sand on their feet. I want them to imagine the glowing bush in the distance — and the moment Moses decides to open himself to a sign.

I want them to notice the courage it took for Moses to approach the fire, and the concentration it took to understand God’s message. As adults we call this being present — and it certainly is a heroic choice we have the potential to make each day.

It is heroic for us to look up and notice the mysteries in our midst. It is heroic to control the impulse to see only the booming urgencies before us, and instead open ourselves to God’s still-small whisper.

In the silence between what we need to do and what we want to do, we hear the call that can make us a hero, too.

It is on us not to be the humble Moses or the Moses who knows the task is impossible. It is on us to be the quiet Moses — the one who is present and open to the call, the one who heard the cry of the Israelites, the one who sets aside what is possible and embraces what is brave.

As Jews we are always listening, always learning how to be our best selves.

Last year ended with hurricanes and gun violence and wildfires; 2018 is asking for heroes like us to take a quiet moment to listen, and hear our passions calling. Only then do we unfold our capes and step bravely forward. This year may we all be heroes, reaching deep within ourselves to choose what is right, and what is good.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at rabbisara@ptbe.org.