This week's portion, Shemot, starts us on the winter's walk toward Spring and Pesach with the story of our slavery in Egypt, Moses' call to leadership, and the first part of our path to freedom.
One of the pivotal scenes in this portion is when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, and God convinces Moses to take the cause of the slaves to Pharaoh. As we remember, Moses does not accept this assignment readily; he first protests several times that he is not sufficient to the task.
In her "Reform Voices of Torah" drash this week, Rabbi Kalisch eloquently posits that it may be hubris, not humility, that initially prevents Moses from accepting the call to leadership. She interprets a midrash (story) from Shimon Bar Yochai to suggest that lack of belief in ourselves can actually be an affront to God. "What a powerful image:," she says, "God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world." She asks herself, and inspires us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I not answering the call to my sacred task? Rabbi Kalisch challenges us all to recognize the sacred call in our lives and to answer it.
I agree with Rabbi Kalisch: Yes, answer the call. I want to unpack a little bit what answering the call means.
First: Recognize that there are many different types of calls and each of us has a unique contribution.
This portion headlines Moses' slow coming to the realization that he is the only one who can confront Pharaoh on the Hebrews' behalf. But this portion actually shows several different characters answering several different calls; each plays a unique role in this story of liberation.
For starters, Neither God nor Moses is the first savior in this story -- for the whole first two chapters, Moses is a baby and God is nowhere in sight. The very first saviors, besides Yocheved, a slave woman who bravely gives birth, are the midwives Shifra and Pu'ah, who defy Pharaoh's orders and save Moses' life (and the lives of several other slave babies).
The next savior is Miriam, Moses' sister, who cares for Moses and follows him along the river, and persuades the princess Batya to bring Moses' own mother to the palace nurse him.
Then there is Batya, who adopts Moses and raises him, and Yocheved again, who nurses him. Each of these women is answering her own sacred call, connected to but also independent of Moses. It takes a strong moral compass for a midwife to refuse a King's order on pain of death, for a sister to insist on preserving a life that is doomed, for a princess to take into her care a baby that she knows is not only a slave, but a slave boy who could only have been kept alive in defiance of her father's decree, and for a birth mother to share her child with another mother for the sake of the child. As a result of their answering their own sacred calls, all of them together - midwives, sister, and mothers - not only save baby Moses' life, but sustain him until he is grown. Long before Moses is called to fulfill his sacred task, it is the sacred acts and the compassion of these women that get this story rolling.
So the first step is to be aware of the many different models of sacred task that are out there. Second is to become aware of your own skills, your own privilege, and your unique position to do good.
Shifra and Pu'ah don't know they are saving the baby who will one day free a nation; they simply recognize that they are in a unique position to save lives, and they do. Miriam recognizes that she, unlike any of the Hebrew adults, can follow baby Moses unseen and convince Pharaoh's daughter to bring his mother as a wet nurse. Batya knows that she is the one person who can legitimately rescue and raise this Hebrew baby -- without her, he would die. Yocheved is his mother, and she comes to the palace to nurse him knowing that she will not be able to raise him.
Moses eventually realizes how he is uniquely positioned to free the slaves, having been raised with the standing and mentality of a free man (and royalty at that), but knowing in his heart his kinship with the Hebrews. Aharon, having lived his life as a slave, cannot fill Moses' role, but as Moses' clear-spoken brother, he can do the speaking for Moses. Even God has a unique, but not omnipotent role: God could not have delivered the baby Moses, nursed him, or gone by Godself to demand freedom from Pharaoh. However, God's own unique powers do position God to be the inspiration and the muscle behind Moses' demands for justice.
Each character not only has a particular skill, but recognizes how they are uniquely positioned to do good. Redemption happens when each and every character uses both their skill and their position to help.
Ramses is uniquely positioned to uphold the covenant between the Egyptian people and Joseph, but by contrast he allows his fear to override his commitment and plunges an entire people into slavery.
Third step: Recognize that you can't do it alone. Each of the women is dependent on the others; Moses is dependent on all of them. Plus, he needs God to push and support him, he needs his brother to help him confront Pharaoh, and he later needs both his brother and his sister to help him lead the people out of Egypt. Even God, as we've said, requires human partners to bring about redemption. No one of these characters could have accomplished what they did alone; it is all of their actions together that result in the freeing of the slaves.
I recently came across a public letter, entitled, "To the White Parents of My Black Son's Friends." In it, the mother of a black child makes it clear how white allies are uniquely positioned to help protect her son from the dangerous, sometimes deadly effects of racism:
"We are doing what we can to find this bizarre balance of helping him be proud of who he is and helping him understand that not everybody is going to see him the way we see him. Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents. But here’s the thing– as much as we can try to protect him and teach him to protect himself, there may come a time when your child will be involved. As the parents of the white friend of my black son, I need you to be talking to your child about racism. I need you to be talking about the assumptions other people might make about my son. I need you to talk to your child about what they would do if they saw injustice happening.
"If they see my son being bullied or called racist names," she says, "they need to stand with him ... If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay ... Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If you are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble you get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can."
The letter calls on people who benefit from privilege in our system to a) become aware of the different situations they find themselves in where her son is vulnerable; b) understand how they may be uniquely positioned to help her son or someone else in his position; c) join her in the effort to keep her son safe and alive, because she cannot do it alone.
To me this is a perfect example of a call to sacred task: We all are, to different degrees, modern-day Shifras, Puahs, Yocheveds, Miriams and Batyas, Moseses and Aharons and Pharaohs. We don't always know what part we are playing in the larger story of a people, or of our world; we don't know how the story will end until it does. But what we do have are these moments when we may be called to a sacred task.
Sometimes the task takes a lifetime; sometimes it happens in a moment. Sometimes it requires sacrifice; sometimes it requires merely being aware. The trick is to prepare ourselves for it, and be present when it arises. What skills do we possess, and what positions do we hold, that will enable us to do good - in small or big ways - when these moments do arise? In this new Gregorian year, may we each be blessed with the clarity to realize the unique roles, skills, and the powers we have at our disposal to sustain life and bring about redemption.