By Yaakov Eric Ackland
Like most BT’s, Moshe is born a stranger in a strange land. He’s born a Jew in a powerful non-Jewish culture, and though he has the love of his family, he’s from a very early age set adrift downstream in the dominant culture with his parents’ faint hope for his survival as a Jew. He even grows up bearing an Egyptian name, and although he was given a Jewish name by his parents, he never uses it, even after becoming “reaffiliated.” much later in life. And though he knows that he’s Jewish, he lives the life of a Jewish Egyptian Prince in this dominant culture. He grows up with a dual-identity, divided loyalties, and likely in his youth felt more Egyptian than Jewish. As one of the elite, approval, success, power, and comfort are his for the taking as long as he stays on track and doesn’t try to shake things up.
In the first recorded episode of his adult life Moses, at around 40 years old emerges from his palace, sees the suffering of the Israelites, and kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. He awakens to the fact of suffering existing outside his sheltered world, and perhaps it is the first inkling of a real bond with the Jewish people. Over the next several episodes, Moshe intervenes for justice between two Jews fighting, between two sets of strangers (his future wife and sisters-in-law to be and the sheppards who were harassing them at the well) and then (in the Midrash) he goes after the one sheep that was lost, and carries it tenderly back to the herd. Like many a secular Jew today, Moshe is upset by any form of injustice or suffering, not just amongst his own people, but for that of (apparently) all sentient beings, and more uncommonly, acts on his perceptions. And Moshe acts almost instinctively; he does the right thing, solely because it feels like the right thing to do (Interestingly, this story of Moshe going forth from his sheltered life, witnessing suffering, and then throwing off everything he knew to leave his home and experience life and suffering directly, before ultimately returning to enlighten and free his people has an Eastern parallel, in the life of Buddha.).
So Moses has lived straddling two worlds, neither of which is truly his “home.” He’s a double exile. After killing the Egyptian, and abandoning Egypt, Moses enters his third level of exile: he’s now a Jewish Egyptian Prince in an alien land: he’s lost the protection of his comfortable life, and he’s disillusioned: it seems that justice doesn’t pay in this world: he’s an outlaw with a price on his head, and he had no gratitude from the man whose life he’d saved, or the people of the man he’d saved. Despite the disillusionment though, he persists in doing what’s right, because it is right. In essence he’s dropped out of the dominant culture, as a significant number of secular Jews have long done. After his third act of justice though, by defending the women at the well, he’s offered one as his bride, and he accepts. Maybe justice is rewarded in this life, he now thinks, maybe now I can have a comfortable life. And like a typical secular Jew, he’s met a nice gentile girl, and only subsequently presumably persuades her to convert (although her conversion isn’t documented in the text.) He settles down and builds a conventionally successful life amongst strangers.
But then Moshe encounters G-d who commands him to return to Egypt and save his people, and bring them to the land where they were intended to live, to the culture they were intended to live in. And very likely, it is Moses’s keen sense of justice, and his willingness to risk his life to live his values that has qualified him for the job. And like the average secular Jew first encountering the idea of Divine commandedness, Moshe argues with Hashem, in essence saying, “Sounds great, a noble task, but not for me. You’ve got the wrong guy.” For Moshe, though concerned about justice, though caring for the oppressed and for their suffering, has thus far been motivated entirely from within to do good. He’s valued his autonomy and perhaps he’s even become enamored of his status as an outlaw and a rebel; as someone who has done things his own way, and has made a life for himself different than that of his peers. Unlike Abraham, the paradigmatic Knight of Faith who unhesitatingly was ready to sacrifice his son upon G-d’s command, Moshe hesitates and passively stalls. Humans resist even that what we wish to do, if it is demanded of us. We like to be flattered into thinking that we have a choice. Any book on modern management will confirm this. Moshe’s refusal may be couched in terms of modesty, of unfitness for the job, and our tradition states that Moshe was the humblest man who ever lived, but a little deeper psychology might reveal these further causes of resistance: fear of loss of comfort and status, loss of his self-identity, loss of autonomy, and fear of failure.
Moses protests and stalls Hashem five times before he accedes. And even after all this, he goes and asks permission from his father-in-law to leave: almost as if he were hoping his father-in-law would deny him permission. Really, if Hashem tells you to do something, do you have really need to ask permission of anyone else? Many a BT has similarly learned what he or she is supposed to do in a certain instance, argued with Hashem, argued with Rabbis, been finally convinced that it must be done, and still sought for pretexts to delay or abstain committing. During the time Moses is back in Egypt, he dickers with Hashem another three times. We can even see a parallel between the repeatedly hardened heart of Pharaoh, which despite repeated oppressive miracles keeps rebounding to that same place of resistance and rebellion and the as yet not fully submitted heart of Moses despite having spoken directly with God. This parallel may be highlighted by the similarities of Moshe’s first response to Hashem’s command, “Who am I that I should got to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” and Pharaoh’s first response to Moshe’s demand: “Who is Hashem that I should heed his voice to send out Israel?” Why the parallel? Perhaps to highlight how much Moshe is still Egyptian as well as Jewish, and can’t deny or purge himself of his past.
Just as the contemporary Jew who finally encounters Hashem, and Torah, and the idea of commandedness ultimately strives to submit (if he or she is intellectually honest) so too did Moshe. And just as it is axiomatic in Judaism that G-d never gives us a challenge we can’t meet, Moshe must have begun the process of internalizing the understanding that with Hashem’s help he cannot fail, and must have felt an exhilaration at finally having discovered the proper outlet for his passion and talent. And so he uprooted from his third level of his exile to head to his fourth level of exile: back to his “home” turf, but this time with a two-fold mission: to punish Pharaoh and to free his people, and this time his sense of justice is subordinated to Hashem’s sense of justice, and is thus tightly and properly focused.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Moshe, like many modern people who first encounter G-d’s repeated hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Torah and the unleashing of these awful plagues upon all of Egypt, may have felt instinctively that this was a bit over-the-top and unnecessarily ruthless, –especially as he must have had many fond memories and ties of affection to that dominant culture and to some of the people within. Under the spirit of submission to Divine commandedness though, Moshe did what was required of him. And though the mission must have seemed impossibly daunting, he succeeded in bringing forth a portion of his people out from Egypt.
And yet now he was in a fifth level of exile, and the Israelites as yet were unhabituated to the idea of commandedness; not habituated to Jewish culture; even resentful of having been pulled out of their familiar enslavement to the dominant culture. They perpetually lag at least a step or two behind Moshe; and they rebel against his leadership –and this stage lasts for an entire generation. They encounter Hashem directly, and even then, they can’t entirely subordinate their will to his; they can’t put their full trust in Him and in Moshe. Just as modern Baalei Tshuva struggle to acclimate themselves to Jewish Law -Halacha, to Orthodox cultural norms, and may even engage in periodic lapses of adherence or in rebellious behavior, and may cling to mementos, music, and memories of the culture they were raised in, so too did the Children of Israel, and yet they ultimately stayed within the fold, and had children: FFB’s who were better acclimated to the Law and to the culture, though still having some taint of their parent’s home culture, and who were prepared to fight the battles necessary to settle the promised land, so that the third and fourth generations could grow up as they were intended, in their home culture, in their homeland, as whole-hearted Jews. Moshe himself never got to see the promised land: he died in exile.
Perhaps we can take from this admittedly non-traditional analysis a greater understanding that Hashem knows what we’re going through as BTs; that He’s seen it all before. Moshe and our other ancestors went though this same struggle to subordinate themselves to Hashem and to Torah. They went through stages; took two steps forward and one back, but resolutely strove to continue to advance towards the goal. BTs, along with FFBs are still in exile, and still 90% of the Jewish people are completely immersed in the culture of Egypt (Western culture), and we ourselves will never be 100% free of it’s allure and influence, and will always feel split between cultures, fully at home nowhere, often uncomfortable, often struggling, and perhaps it will only be our grandchildren or great-grandchildren who will be completely prepared to live a comprehensive, fully immersed Jewish life, but out job is clear, if daunting –as daunting to us as Moshe’s was to him: we need simultaneously to acclimate, learn, teach, and lead: we need to learn to bow our stubborn necks and subordinate our will to Hashem, and most crucially we need to rouse our brethren from their comfortable status as slaves of Egypt. We need to have them see that the discomfort of growth, of self-transformation, and of uprooting, of being prepared to spend a lifetime in the wilderness, is the most vital thing, and it begins when we begin to submit to Divine commandedness. We needn’t however beat ourselves up, and judge ourselves harshly at our failure to be one hundred percent submitted and committed, for Hashem already knows how hard it is. If Moshe struggled and the Bnei Israel struggled, and they experienced Hashem more directly than anyone has since, then surely we, who are so far away from all that, can take some solace and sustenance from this. Moshe is our model.