On Anxiety and Reassurance
Even before he became Moshe Rabbeinu, our great teacher and leader, Moshe had a very impressive resume. Even before he confronted Pharaoh or split the Red Sea, Moshe had the mark of being special. His goodness was recognizable even when he was a baby, his mother saw it, and his adoptive mother recognized it too.1 Yet, it was difficult for Moshe himself to see. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero; he thinks of himself as inarticulate and unconvincing, as much more likely to fail than to succeed. As he ascended to leadership, he maintained this fundamentally modest opinion of himself. Even after Moshe becomes undeniably great, God says that Moshe is the most humble man on the face of the earth.2
In this week’s parashah, God chooses Moshe, but Moshe refuses his mission. God is exasperated to the point of fury because Moshe comes up with reason after reason for why he won’t be successful and why he should not be sent. Moshe can’t summon the confidence to accept this mantle of leadership and God doesn’t tell him why he has been chosen, why he is the man for the job. Moshe is feeling insecure and unworthy, but God does not provide Moshe with the reassurance that he needs. God doesn’t inspire Moshe to believe in himself, and therefore Moshe doesn’t believe in himself.
Why doesn’t God give Moshe the encouragement that he asks for and just neutralize the frustration on both sides? Perhaps it is because Moshe’s needs are not the only ones that we ought to consider. God’s own challenges and anxieties in this interaction can explain why He isn’t available to address Himself to Moshe’s. God doesn’t help Moshe build his self-confidence, because God Himself has His own anxieties to resolve. And perhaps it is not only God who is being unresponsive to Moshe’s need for reassurance, but Moshe who is not being adequately sensitive to God’s need for support.3
When God first selects Moshe, he is famously reluctant, and this reluctance has a specific refrain. Moshe thinks that he is unworthy and that therefore the people will not believe him. Moshe asks God why he is being sent:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם:
Moshe said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?
In response to Moshe’s question of “Who am I?” God says nothing. He does not point to Moshe’s inherent qualities or demonstrated leadership. God does not say, “Who are you?! You are Moshe! You are someone who stands by the oppressed. You saved one of your brethren from being beaten to death. You protected your future wife and sisters-in-law when they were being denied water.4 You are a man of great accomplishments and of even greater potential! When I was here in the burning bush, you are the only one who had the curiosity and wisdom to stop.”5 God does not say any of this. Instead, God tells Moshe that He will help him to be successful regardless of who he is, וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ [God] said, for I will be with you. God’s answer may have been intended as encouraging, but read through Moshe’s eyes, it is devastating. Moshe asks, “Am I good enough?” and God says, “No, not really, but I will help you.”
When we read God’s responses in this way, it is completely unsurprising to find that Moshe reiterates that he feels incapable and unworthy:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה' בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי:
Moshe said to God, “My Master, please. I am not a man of words. Neither yesterday nor the day before, nor now when You have spoken to Your servant for I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.”
And again, God does not respond by telling Moshe that he is a good speaker. God doesn’t promise to fix Moshe’s language-problems, or say that being inarticulate is not relevant, or that Moshe has other capacities that make up for this lack of ability. Instead, God seems to get defensive:
11וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֵלָיו מִי שָׂם פֶּה לָאָדָם אוֹ מִי יָשׂוּם אִלֵּם אוֹ חֵרֵשׁ אוֹ פִקֵּחַ אוֹ עִוֵּר הֲלֹא אָנֹכִי ה': 12וְעַתָּה לֵךְ וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְהוֹרֵיתִיךָ אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר:
God said to him, “Who gives a person speech or makes them mute or deaf, or seeing or blind, isn’t it I, God? And now, go. I will be with your mouth and I will instruct you in what to say.”
God does not say, “Moshe! You can do it!” God says again that He will help Moshe, that He will be there with him. So Moshe, after having been subtly told that he actually isn’t uniquely suited for this job, and perhaps is not even adequate to the job, comes to the conclusion that he shouldn’t be the one to do it. He says, “בִּי אֲדֹנָי שְׁלַח נָא בְּיַד תִּשְׁלָח, My Master, please just send whomever you will send.”6 Moshe needs God to tell him why he is worthy, but God refuses. So Moshe says that he might as well not go at all, and this makes God furious, וַיִּחַר אַף ה' בְּמֹשֶׁה.7. But what is the cause of this impasse? Why can’t God tell Moshe what he clearly needs to hear?
Ironically, an answer to this question can be found through a midrash which highlights that God is quite aware of and sensitive to Moshe’s inexperience and insecurity:
שמות רבה פרשת שמות פרשה ג
ויאמר אנכי אלהי אביך, ההוא דכתיב (משלי יד) פתי יאמין לכל דבר...אין פתי אלא לשון פתוי כמה דתימא (שמות כב) וכי יפתה איש. אמר רבי יהושע הכהן בר נחמיה בשעה שנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על משה טירון היה משה לנבואה, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא- אם נגלה אני עליו בקול גדול אני מבעתו, בקול נמוך בוסר הוא על הנבואה, מה עשה? נגלה עליו בקולו של אביו. אמר משה הנני מה אבא מבקש? אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא איני אביך אלא אלהי אביך- בפתוי באתי אליך כדי שלא תתירא.
Shemot Rabbah 3
He said I am the God of your father. This is as it is written, A fool (peti) will believe anything… Peti is the language of seduction (pituy) as it says, when a man seduces (yifteh). R’ Yehoshua the Kohen b. Nehemiah said: When the Holy Blessed One revealed Himself to Moshe he was a prophetic novice. The Holy Blessed One said: If I reveal Myself to him in a great voice I will frighten him, with a small voice I will sour him on prophecy. What did He do? He revealed Himself to him with the voice of his father. Moshe said: Here I am! What does father ask? The Holy Blessed One said: I am not your father, rather I am the God of your father. I came to you with seduction so that you would not be afraid.
In this midrash, God approaches Moshe with a tremendous amount of sensitivity to how daunting prophecy is. In it we see God calling to Moshe with gentleness, carefully modulating His voice so as not to be alarming. But there is another layer to this midrash and to God’s choice to reach out to Moshe in this way. Though this midrash is designed to focus our attention on the way that God introduces Himself to Moshe, a close reading of the biblical text yields that God plans to introduce Himself to the people in the exact same way, using the same name and same phrasing. Perhaps, God is using this introduction to Moshe as a test run of His future interactions with the Jewish people. God wants to see what will happen when He reappears after a long time of silence. While the Jews have been suffering in Egypt, God has been silent at best and complicit at worst. Just as Moshe hasn’t received any prophetic communication, the Jewish people have been hearing only silence from the Divine. God wants to know what will happen when He reappears in Jewish history and into the lives of the people.
When God reaches out to Moshe, He says,
אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב
I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov.
And God tells Moshe to report to Bnei Yisrael using the same name:
ה' אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם
HaShem the God of your ancestors, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov has sent me to you.
When God chooses to speak to Moshe with the voice of his father, Amram, He’s calling out to Moshe with the voice of a father that Moshe most likely has never seen or heard. Moshe knows that his father exists, but was not raised by him. When God calls out to Moshe in Amram’s voice, He wants to see how Moshe will react. Will Moshe be receptive, or will he reply with anger and resentment, “Where have you been? Why did you let me be raised as if I didn’t have a father?”
In the midrash, Moshe answers, “Hineni! Here I am!” This is an encouraging result for God’s test. But readers of the biblical text know that the reality is quite different. When God reaches out to Moshe, Moshe does not say that he is ready to go, in fact, Moshe says the opposite, שְׁלַח נָא בְּיַד תִּשְׁלָח, just send anyone. Anyone, but me. Moshe repeatedly says, “I’m not ready” instead of saying, “Here I am.” When God reaches out to Moshe, it is with a particular concern that Moshe is not aware of. Moshe doesn’t know that he is standing in for the Jewish people. There is something specific that God needs to hear from Moshe, God needs to be responded to with willingness and forgiveness. When Moshe is unwilling and untrusting, he thinks that he is speaking only for himself, but to God, this response serves as frightening evidence that the people will be similarly resistant.
God and Moshe are at an impasse. Moshe wants to know who he is, he needs to hear what his merits are based on what he’s done in the past, but God tells him what he is capable of and what he’ll do in the future. God repeatedly says that everything is going to be fine and that Moshe and the people should focus on God’s promise for the future. God answers every question and every challenge in this way because God is not answering to Moshe’s anxiety about Moshe’s identity, God is answering to God’s own anxiety about the success of the mission. When the people ask, “Where were You? Who are You? Why should we listen to You?” God’s answer is, “I will be. I know that I haven’t been there for you in the past, but I am still the God of your ancestors and I promise that I will be there in the future”:
שמות ג:יג-יד, יז
13וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם: וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם:... וָאֹמַר אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵעֳנִי מִצְרַיִם
Shemot 3:13-14, 17
Moshe said to God. “Behold I am coming to Bnei Yisrael and I will say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors sent me to you.’ And they will say back to me, ‘What is His name?’ What should I tell them?” God said to Moshe, “I will be that I will be.” He said, “So shall you say to Bnei Yisrael, ‘I Will Be’ sent me to you’... And I [God] will say that I will raise you from the suffering of Egypt.
When we read the story through the lens of Moshe’s anxiety, we see God as emotionally out of touch and as denying Moshe the support that He needs. However, when we read the story through the lens of God’s anxiety, we see how God reads Moshe’s attitude as an attack on Him and His absence. God doesn’t reassure Moshe that he is an adequate messenger because when Moshe expresses his own feelings of inadequacy, God hears in his voice God’s own great fear that the people will reject Him. God doesn’t hear the voice of Moshe’s insecurity over His own internal monologue of concerns and doubts. And of course Moshe knows that God will be successful, but Moshe doesn’t know if he should be chosen, and he can’t hear God’s insecurity over his own external monologue of hesitation and fear. God and Moshe aren’t responding to each others needs only because they are distracted by their own.
Just as the communication between God and Moshe prefigures the interaction between God and the Jewish people, so too the dynamic of this interaction between Moshe and God replays itself in our interpersonal relationships. We often wonder why we aren’t receiving the support that we need, why it is “so hard” for other people to say to us what we need to hear. This passage teaches us to realize that the explanation for this lack of support is rarely that the other party is just being insensitive, selfish, or stubborn. Usually the answer is that the other person has their own needs. They have their own reasons for their responses or lack thereof which reflect their own preoccupations, their own understanding, and their own needs.
Real relationships and real people are complex. Instead of sarcastically asking the question, “why is it sooo hard for you to be there for me?!” we need to ask it sincerely. Why is this hard? When we genuinely try to find out why other people are not providing for us, we’ll learn that they are their own people with their own set of needs and priorities. We’ll discover that the conversation might sound very different in someone else’s ears. We’ll figure out how to be there for one another and to support one another in a way that is respectful and realistic, sensitive and mutual.
Getting this right takes time and effort, but it is possible. In our parashah, when Moshe and God first meet, it seems like there is an unbridgeable chasm of miscommunication between them, but Moshe eventually becomes Moshe Rabbeinu, the only person to speak to God face to face and communicate with God with perfect clarity.
1 Shemot 2:2, 6.
2 Bemidbar 12:3.
3 Though the notion of God’s needing support and reassurance from human beings may seem foreign or even disturbing, it does have a pedigree in Rabbinic literature and thought. On Shabbat 89a, the Talmud describes a scene where Moshe goes up to Heaven and finds God tying crowns to the letters of the Torah. God is insulted that Moshe doesn’t greet Him, and when Moshe tries to defend himself, God says, לך היה לעזרני, you should have supported Me. At this point Moshe recites a verse of encouragement to God. It’s clear from this story that even though Moshe, the human being, does not think of God as needing encouragement, God Himself does want Human support.
4 Shemot 2:11-20.
5 As the 19th cent. English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writes, “Every common bush afire with God / But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”
6 Shemot 3:13.
7 Shemot 3:14. Interestingly, this is the first time in the Torah where the text says that God gets angry. There have been sin and punishment, of course, and moments when it is clear that God is not pleased, but God does not get angry until this interaction with Moshe.