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A Sign for You

  • A Sign for You

    Sh'mot, Exodus 1:1−6:1
D'var Torah By: 

Every great leader must maintain his or her own precarious and perpetually shifting balance between the debilitations of humility and the cravings of ego. "Who am i to lead these people?" and "God, Himself, has chosen Me!" To choose either spells disaster for both the leader and the led. Nowhere do we see this more excruciatingly played out than in the career of one who is arguably the greatest leader of all time?Moses. The paradigm Jewish leader—despite his literal electionby God—is portrayed as staggeringly humble. Indeed, the name of Moses, by tradition, is not mentioned even once in any decent Passover Haggadah.

It is just this dilemma that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (d. 1810) addresses in his K’dushat Levi for this week’s portion. (For the Berditchever, this is no mere theoretical exercise—he is also hammering out what will become the ground rules for any would-be tzaddik or rebbe in a new movement of religious revival called Chasidism.) After God’s appearance in the flames of the bush and the ensuing divine summons to lead the Jewish people to free­dom, Moses not unreasonably asks, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . ?" (Exodus 3:11). ("Have you seen that guy? He’s Jabba the Hutt!") But instead of sending a sign, God only says, " This will be a sign for you that I have sent you, once you’ve brought them out from Egypt, you’ll come and worship God here at this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). (Moses must think to himself, "Thanks, but afterI’ve brought them out, I won’t need a sign!")

Levi Yitzchak, however, uses precisely Moses’s apparently unanswered question as an opportunity to contemplate the nature of genuine religious leadership. He begins his teaching with what might also serve as Judaism’s reply to meditative stillness.

In sharp contrast to an ersatz Buddhism lately masquerading as Jewish spirituality that claims, "Wherever you go, there you are," comes Hasidism’s answer, "Wherever you go, you’re not there yet!" Or, in the words of the great contemporary Israeli Talmudist and kabbalist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, "Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind" ( The Thirteen Petalled Rose, trans. Yehuda Hanegbe [New York: Basic Books, 1980], p. 131). Indeed, Steinsaltz goes so far as to say that "someone who has stopped going—he who has a feeling of . . . a great light from above that has brought him to rest—to be someone who has lost his way" (p. 132).

This is because Judaism unceasingly—indeed, almost compulsively—strives for ever-higher levels of consciousness, devotion, and practice. Striving is an endless and lifelong process. A would-be serious Jew is perpetually conscious of what he lacks. And his or her only spiritual question is, "Now what?" The Berditchever cites a tradition teaching that even the spiritual exemplar par excellence , Elijah, or Eliyahu[who, by the way, is likened by the Rabbis to a second Moses], exclaims, "I know nothing of You at all!" And just this is the highest form of awareness! For this reason we are well advised to distrust anyone who claims to have found the way or the answer.

This theme of ceaseless yearning is further implied in the very name of God that God shares with Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh (Exodus 3:14) . Often mistranslated as the static "I am that I am," this Name is actually nothing more than the Hebrew verb "to be" in the future tense (which, in Hebrew, is technically the imperfect tense, which is to say that the verbal action is not yetcomplete). In other words, the Name God gives to God’s self at the bush might reasonably be rendered as: "I am not yet who I am not yet." And thus, those who would serve such a God must themselves likewise endure a perpetual state of becoming, striving, not knowing, and yearning.

The Berditchever then develops this idea by citing an odd (and possibly corrupt) word in Psalm 48:15, "He [God] will be our guide al-moot , ‘until death,’" or perhaps, "He guides olamot, ‘worlds.’" But the word might also be deliberately misread as "He guides almut, ‘children.’" The Baal Shem Tov [d. c. 1760], progenitor of Chasidism, expounding on this creative misreading of almutas "children," used to teach that, like a parent teaching his or her child to walk, "no sooner does the child take a few steps toward the parent than the parent lovingly moves backwards, urging the little one to take a few more steps." Thus life (and God) constantly coax us to continue growing, reaching, and moving on. And, in the same way, teaches Levi Yitzchak, the righteous are continuously aware of their deficiencies, ever striving to improve themselves.

And this brings us (and the Berditchever) to Moses’s apparently unanswered question: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" The ques­tion is obviously spoken from the great man’s humility and his keen awareness of his own inadequacy. And here, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers us a preposterously simple yet profoundly chastening answer. We must read it as if God, in effect, says to Moses that the question is itself the answer! "Just this will be the sign that I have sent you," says God. "Because You, Moses, are humble enough to ask and truly believe, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ means that you are precisely the right one for the task. Don’t you understand? Moses, your asking, ‘Who am I?’ is itself " the signthat I am sending you!"

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality including a new novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story ( New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).

© 2006 Lawrence Kushner

The Complexities of Pride
Davar Acher By: 
Ellen Nemhauser

Rabbi Laurence Kushner leads us in a wonderful exploration of our Jewish legacy to be in a state of "ceaseless yearning." We learn that Levi Yitzchak considers righteous people to be ever "aware of their deficiencies, ever striving to improve themselves."

This is a great lesson for leaders from biblical times to the present. The caution against "self-satisfaction" and pride seems most essential in light of our current headlines. Too often our leaders fall prey to conceit and become impervious to the constraints and controls that should govern all of our behaviors.

Yet, we are taught to raise our children to have a healthy degree of self-worth by helping them to cultivate a sense of pride in their worthy actions and accomplishments. Furthermore, how could any leader face the daily challenges of guiding the multitudes were they overly meek and modest? One must believe in oneself in order to gain the recognition and acceptance of others.

A medieval scholar, Rabbi Menacham HaMeiri, explained the complexities of the human quality of "pride." In his Chibbur HaT’shuvah (treatise I, chap. 5), he recognizes the tension of too much pride versus the need for some pride and differentiates types of this human quality. HaMeiri divides the quality of pride into four categories: pride, magisterial behavior, self-esteem, and dignity ( referenced by Rabbi Professor Carmi Horowitz, in Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Bemidbar5763/May 31, 2003).

The first category is just what Rabbi Kushner has warned against: extreme assuredness and a sense that you own the "truth." The other three categories might make people seemprideful in their actions, but they are actually necessary qualities for people to successfully make their way in the world.

HaMeiri writes: "A ruler must hold sway above others in order to impose fear, which keeps away sin. At the same time, such a ruler can be humble in his own eyes, for humility and leadership do not contradict each other. Moses was humble, yet he had leadership talent." He contrasts how Moses was modest even as a leader, whereas Aaron the priest was of overly modest spirit, and this trait caused "softness and fear," the result of which was his inability to prevent the sin of the Golden Calf.

As we learn from the leadership model of Moshe Rabbeinu, let us guard against the sin of prideful arrogance while maintaining a healthy sense of our self-worth and dignity.

Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser is director, CCAR/HUC-JIR Joint Commission for Sustaining Rabbinic Education and lives in Atlanta, Georgia .

Reference Materials: 

Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1-6:1 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 382-414; Revised Edition, pp. 343-374; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
, pp. 305-330
Haftarah, Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 692-695; Revised Edition, pp. 375-378

When do we read Sh'mot

2021, January 9
25 Tevet, 5781
2021, December 25
21 Tevet, 5782
2023, January 14
21 Tevet, 5783
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