“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Moses was full of doubt. God trusted him anyway.

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Vaera

Exodus 6:2–9:35


In last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, God appears to Moses through a burning bush on Mount Horeb, and the future leader of the people of Israel is filled with a sense of awe and humility. Moses immediately takes off his sandals and listens intently to what God has to say.

God has marked well the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and has heeded their outcry. God is mindful of their sufferings. God will rescue them from their bondage and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey — but God needs a human surrogate.

God says to Moses: “Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).

Can you imagine what an enormous ego trip this must have been for a simple shepherd, a man plucked from obscurity to lead his people, in almost messianic fashion, from slavery to freedom?

Who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance for such glory and accolade?

Rather than eagerly accepting his special election and privileged status, Moses instead questions God’s decision: “Who am I,” he asks, “that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).

Moses’ response is not unheard of in the Hebrew Bible. The Prophet Jonah, whom we read about every year on Yom Kippur afternoon, also resists the divine call to lead — as does the Prophet Jeremiah.

But there is a key difference. Whereas Jonah and Jeremiah resist the call because they don’t want to bear the burden and feeling of isolation that comes with being a prophetic leader, Moses expresses doubt about his own worthiness.

When called by God, Moses doesn’t question the order. He questions himself.

In this week’s parashah, Vaera, God answers Moses’ question — “Who am I?” — and, in doing so, God also addresses his resistance, but in an indirect way.

When called by God, Moses doesn’t question the order. He questions himself.

The Torah portion begins: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name, YHVH’” (Exodus 6:2-3).

God then explains to Moses how this theophany, this profound moment of revelation, is qualitatively different from God’s earlier appearances to and relationships with the patriarchs: none of them knew God’s personal name; none of them interacted with God in such close partnership; none of them ever led their people to the very entrance of the Promised Land.

Forty years later, at the conclusion of the Torah, the text makes it clear that Moses was held in special regard by God, unique among the many and varied characters in Scripture: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face [panim el panim] …” (Deut. 34:10).

While we don’t know exactly what it meant for Moses to know God “face to face,” we can infer that it involved a unique level of intimacy that no one else in the Hebrew Bible ever reached. The Biblical patriarchs, for example, might have experienced God, spoken to God and interrelated with God, but not one of them ever encountered God’s true essence, God’s personhood.

In a term that the Jewish theologian Martin Buber would most likely have used, only Moses had an “I-Thou” relationship with the Almighty.

When Moses resists the divine call and asks God, “Who am I?” in the famous scene at the burning bush, he expresses a heartfelt and deep humility that serves as a model for all of us who strive for moral and spiritual rectitude.

And when God answers him in this week’s Torah portion, God implies that it is only someone of such humble character that is worthy of the mantle of leadership, strong enough to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and enlightened and evolved to a degree that make an intimate and ultimately successful partnership with God possible.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley. He is the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City and author or editor of 10 books, including “Gonzo Judaism” and “God at the Edge.”