“Who am I?” Humility vs. Evasion
Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno is the Rosh Kollel of the Straus Semicha Program training rabbis for the Diaspora, part of Ohr Torah Stone’s Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary, and the Director of the Maarava Program which trains shlichim for Sephardic communities worldwide
At the heart of the Exodus from Egypt, which we commemorate on the festival of Pesach, lies the shlichut of Moshe Rabeinu. Moshe was sent on a mission by God Himself to save the People of Israel after the cry of their great agony – induced by the heavy bondage – had reached Heaven. This notion has led many to ask why the name of Moshe is not mentioned at all in the Haggadah, and many a reason has been offered. However, we sometimes forget the fact that at the outset of the story, Moshe Rabeinu stands before God and refuses to take on this mission.
A closer examination of the verses will reveal that Moshe refuses to accept God’s unique and historical request/instruction no less than five times, offering a variety of excuses and reasons. In fact, according to our Sages, these “negotiations” between God and Moshe lasted seven whole days.
The first time God reveals Himself to Moshe in the Burning Bush, He says: “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot 3:10).
Moshe then responds: “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (ibid. verse 11). According to Rashi, Moshe puts forth two claims: (a) Who am I that I can speak to kings? (b) Why have the People of Israel merited that such a great miracle be done unto them and that I should take them out of Egypt?
Moshe not only doubts his own worthiness to carry out this mission, but also has doubts about the mission’s success. According to Rashi, God responds to Moshe’s two claim thus: “Certainly I shall be with thee” (Shemot 3:12), which ultimately means: “As to your claiming that you are not worthy to come before Pharaoh, it is from me and not from you, and I shall be with you.” And when God says: “When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (ibid) this comes to say: “When you asked which merits the People of Israel have to be deserving to be taken out of Egypt, there is great merit for this exodus, for they will get the Torah upon this mountain.”
Later on, Moshe Rabeinu tries to evade the mission by claiming: “What is His name?” [Who is this God that is sending me?] (Shemot 3:13), and when God answers, Moshe goes on to argue: “But they shall not believe me” (Shemot 4:1), to which God answers in kind and gives Moshes numerous signs to show the People.
This is how the Ramban puts it: “At this time Moshe did not utter worthy words… Immediately God responded and gave him the signs as answer to all his [Moshe’s] words.”
Moshe’s fourth attempt to reject the mission is expressed through his fifth argument: “I am not a man of words (Shemot 4:10), to which God replies: “I shall be with your mouth.” But then comes Moshe’s fifth rejection: “Send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send” (Shemot 4:13), followed by “and the anger of God was kindled against Moshe.”
According to Rashi, Moshe’s words comprise two separate arguments: (a) He did not wish to accept a position of leadership which would make him greater than his brother Aharon, who was older than he, and for this reason he said to God – “send in the hands of the one You are used to sending” namely – Aharon, and (b) Send somebody else, for I will not merit to bring them into the Land nor be their savior in the future.
Let us not err to think that this point of the dialogue marks the end of the negotiations. Rather, it is our obligation to try and understand why God’s anger bursts forth following this particular point, and not in reaction to the other arguments presented by Moshe earlier.
Furthermore, the verses do not seem to present an answer to Moshe’s second argument. As to Moshe’s first argument, although there seems to be an answer in the verses – “Is there not Aharon thy brother the Levite? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee; and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart” (Shemot 4:14) – this hardly suffices as an answer, since Moshe did not refuse because he was afraid of Aharon’s reaction, but because he did not want take on a role that would make him greater than his brother. If so, this latter argument still goes unanswered.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichot, Vol. 31, Parshat Shemot, Discourse III) explains that the answer to Moshe’s claims can be found a few verses later, in the description of Moshe’s going down to Egypt (Shemot 4:20): “And Moshe took his wife and his sons, and set them upon a donkey”. Our Sages, in their reference to the translation of the seventy scholars who translated the Torah [into Greek] for King Talmai, discuss the translation of the said “donkey” in the verse above. Instead of using the word “donkey”, the Septuagint chose to use “carrier of people” lest King Talmai question Moshe’s usage of a lowly animal rather than a more worthy one (tractate of Megillah 9:1). Still and all, we do not find in the words of our Sages a sufficient clarification as to why Moshe should choose to ride a donkey in particular.
Rashi alludes to a fascinating Midrash that refers to this donkey (Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer, Chapter 31): “This donkey was a designated one. It was the same donkey that Avraham saddled on his way to the Akeida, the Binding of Yitzhak, and it is one and the same upon which will ride the Messiah when he should reveal himself.” A deeper reading of the words of our Sages will reveal that they incorporate an answer to Moshe’s last two arguments.
Moshe’s first argument, whether we interpret it as a complete evasion like the Ramban – “Send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send, for there is no one in the whole world who is less worthy than I am for this mission” – or whether we interpret it like Rashi who says that Moshe did not wish to take upon himself more greatness than Aharon his brother, ultimately Moshe still expresses doubt in God’s instruction, as if saying to Him that He had not considered the matter thoroughly enough before turning to Moshe. Until this point, Moshe’s arguments were reasonable: Who am I? Why are Israel deserving of salvation? Which name of God do I give them? How will they believe me? But at this point, Moshe seems to suggest that God did not put enough thought into His request – either because all others are more worthy than he is, or else because such a request of Moshe is inappropriate seeing that he is the youngest brother, unfit to have greatness beyond that of his elder brother. To this God responds by instructing Moshe to take the donkey that had belonged to Avraham Avinu. What is the significance of this? God wishes Moshe to put before his eyes, as it were, Avraham’s devotion when the latter was commanded to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice. Avraham had not hesitated for a moment and went to fulfill God’s commandment without delay and without putting forth a single argument.
As to the second argument, God wishes to hint to Moshe that the exodus from Egypt is the beginning of a long process, which begins with Moshe and culminates in the coming of the Messiah, and that Moshe cannot evade the mission by claiming that he will not be the one who brings the mission to its completion.
The above story of Moshe and his shlichut must serve as an important example to us, as shlichim, and the message it conveys must be constantly reiterated. Although we have not merited Divine revelation, nor has God conveyed to us directly what precise shlichut we must fulfill, one who looks wisely upon his/her own life reality and circumstances will not fail to notice that there is always a crucial calling that must be undertaken. However, sometimes the people most worthy of undertaking the mission try evading it by making arguments similar to those presented by Moshe. When that happens, we must stand firm and respond to their arguments by giving them God’s answers to Moshe.
If one does not wish to undertake a shlichut by saying “Who am I?” we must answer such a one that the mission is not a personal matter, as God said to Moshe – “It is from me and not from you, and I shall be with you.” And if one rejects a mission by saying that another is more worthy than he, we must put before his eyes the image of Avraham Avinu saddling his donkey and setting out swiftly to sacrifice his son without any hesitation on his part, only complete joy. And if one claims not to have the ability or competence to complete the task at hand, for it is too great, then let us say to him: “It is not upon you to finish the work” (Pirkei Avot 2, 15), but you must begin it nonetheless, even if another completes it. And remember that this does not detract from your part in it, just like Moshe’s role in the Exodus is no less great even though the ultimate redemption will only come to pass when the Messiah completes it.
 As is phrased by the Ramban: “I am the lowliest of men, a mere shepherd, while he is a great king.” And in the words of the Ibn Ezra: “Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh? Even if it is only to present him with an offering and a gift, I am still not worthy of entering the court of the king for I am a stranger.”
 According to Rashi, Moshe seems to be doubtful of the People of Israel’s right to salvation. However, the Ramban renders a different explanation: “Who am I that I should take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt – for You told me to take them to the Land of Canaan, and since they are a wise and clever People, surely they will not want to follow me to a land filled with nations greater and mightier than them.” The Ibn Ezra, too, takes a different approach and explains thus: “Even if I were worthy of presenting myself before Pharaoh… is Pharaoh such a fool to listen to me and send away a multitude of slaves from his country and set them free?”