We All Ask, “Who Am I?”
By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Parents often ask their children, “What do you want to be when you group up?” They sometimes get the typical answer: nurse, doctor, fire fighter, etc. Sometimes, the responses are unexpected. One of my children once answered that he wanted to be a fire truck. One girl named Suzy, when asked this question, answered, “I want to be Suzy. If I become someone else, then who will be Suzy? I just want to be myself.”
There’s a halakhah that states: When a person is asked to be the Shaliach Tzibur (the person who leads the prayers in synagogue), he should initially decline. When asked a second time, he should hesitate slightly. When asked a third time, he should ascend to the cantor’s post immediately.
The Talmud (TB Berachot 34a), which is the source of this law, states: “One who doesn’t hesitate at all is like a cooked food without salt; one who refuses excessively is like a cooked food with too much salt.” The Sfas Emes remarked that three biblical figures acted as examples of three types of people: (1) Korach aspired for honor, and was like the food without salt at all. (2) Aharon hesitated when invited to be a Kohen, but only initially, and therefore he was like the food with just the right amount of salt. (3) Moshe, when told by God to be the redeemer of Israel, refused excessively, and was like the food that is too salty.
Moshe refused Hashem’s invitation a full three times. The first time he refused was when he said (3:11), “מִי אָנֹכִי” – “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take Bnei Israel out of Egypt?”
The second time he demurred was based on his having a speech impediment (4:10): “בִּי אֲדֹ-נָי” “O God, there is a defect in me! I am not a man of words… I am rather a man of heavy mouth and tongue.”
The third time Moshe refused, he didn’t give an apparent reason, but simply said, very cryptically (4:13): Once again, “בִּי אֲדֹ-נָי” – the problem is within me. “שְׁלַח־נָא בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָח” – “Send now, in a hand send.” We don’t even know what those words mean, but this refusal raised Hashem’s subsequent ire against Moshe (4:14). Why did Moshe refuse three times, and how do we understand his final objection?
There are so many different ways of understanding the vision of the Burning Bush. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashba”m) has a fascinating interpretation (3:11). He suggests that the Burning Bush was a model to Moshe about himself. Every human being is usually in charge of and limited by his natural abilities. But there are times when miracles occur, and the human being is “possessed,” as it were, with superhuman abilities that far exceed his own abilities. A regular bush would normally be consumed if it was infused with so much fiery energy.
However, there are times when God can infuse an individual with power that would normally consume him; miraculously, the individual endures that power and accomplishes great things with it.
Have no fear
Hashem was telling Moshe that he should not fear the formidable task being assigned to him. Even though a normal human being would not have the ability to just saunter into Pharaoh’s palace and make such demands, and even though a normal human being would not have the ability to persuade an entire nation of people to pick everything up and leave their homeland, Moshe was about to be infused with a superhuman strength that was not his own.
This is what Hashem meant when he said to Moshe (3:12): “כִּי־אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ” – “I will be with you; you will not be doing this on your strength, but rather with the special Divine energy that I am implanting within you.” “וְזֶה־לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ” – “And this, the Burning Bush, is the symbol of what you are about to become.” You will be “on fire,” filled with a superhuman energy that will not consume you.
Why, then, did Moshe object an additional two times, even after Hashem’s explanation?
Some commentaries suggest that Moshe couldn’t understand why Hashem would choose such a flawed “vessel” to be His representative. “I have a speech impediment! Wouldn’t you rather choose Your representative as someone who can at least speak properly?”
Moshe mirroring the burning bush
Hashem’s response to Moshe was, just to the contrary, I want you to be a complete receptacle of Divine power. Just as a dry bush is perhaps the most combustible of plants, I have chosen you to be the bearer of eloquent speech precisely because of your speech handicap. This will prove to Pharaoh and all the onlookers that you are coming not of your own strength, but from a Divine “fire” that was miraculously implanted within you.
We can now understand Moshe’s third objection. Moshe viewed himself not only as a man with a speech impediment, but also as a person who, over the years, had become a peaceful shepherd, and who was anything but aggressive and belligerent. God had told Moshe (3:19): “I know that the king of Egypt will not give you permission to leave,” “וְלֹא בְּיָד חֲזָקָה” – “especially because he has such a strong grip [‘hand’] upon the people.” Wouldn’t it make more sense, reasoned Moshe, to have someone with an aggressive personality, someone who could counter the very strong “hand” of Pharaoh? This is why Moshe used the word “hand” in this last protest.
This is when Hashem displayed anger to Moshe.
Hashem had expected Moshe to be His sole representative, and that Moshe would be able to alter his personality, overcome his natural aversion to confrontation, and rise to the occasion. When Moshe demurred this third time, Hashem scolded him by telling him that if Moshe could not bring himself to aggressively stand up to Pharaoh by himself, then Aharon, Moshe’s brother, would need to assist him and provide the moral support and encouragement necessary to follow through on this difficult task.
This story is not just a lesson about Moshe. It’s a lesson for each of us. Rav Mordechai Lainer suggested that when asked, “Who am I, that I should act as the redeemer,” Moshe was really asking a more existential question: “What is within me? Is this really my destined path? Is this project my raison d’être, my reason for being?”
This is sometimes the greatest paralyzing factor in one’s life. We never really know for sure whether the endeavor that I’m investing so much of my life into – whether it’s a career, a relationship, a community project, etc. – is really what I’m supposed to be doing. Perhaps someone else would be better served doing this, or perhaps it shouldn’t be done at all.
Hashem’s response to Moshe, for every objection, was “כִּי־אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ” – “I am with you on this journey.” We should all view ourselves as receptacles for Hashem’s will. We will never know for sure “who we are” and what our true destiny is. All we can do is hope that even when the task seems to be formidable or even insurmountable, that Hashem will imbue us with a supernatural “fire” that will allow us to complete the task.
Getting it just right
The important thing is not to demur or ruminate over our options for too long of a period. Hesitation born from self-doubt and caution is fine for a brief period, but not for an extended period. When one is working on preparing a meal, if you don’t spend enough time on kitchen prep, if you don’t add enough spice, the food will come out bland.
But if you spend too much time shaking that salt shaker, adding spice, and otherwise trying to “patchke” with your food, you will end up ruining it. Similarly, one can spend a lifetime deliberating over what to do, how to do it, when to do it, etc. But if we don’t pull the trigger at some point, we will have squandered the most important gift of existence, our life itself.
May we all have the merit of discovering who we are. May Hashem continue to imbue our chayalim with the miraculous “fire” that impels them to victory. May we all do great things over the different chapters of our lives, so that we can help in ushering the ultimate Redemption, bb”a.