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Refusing the Call

Before introducing us to Moshe, the Torah describes how Yakov’s family grew numerous and how the Egyptian government felt threatened by such a sizable population of outsiders. Determined to curb this threat, they devised a means to subjugate the Jewish People, which they slowly dialed up until it became intolerable. Once the Torah has established the setting, the Torah tells us of Moshe’s birth and upbringing before he has to flee.

Moshe encounters the mysterious burning bush on his travels, and God calls on him to save his people. Curiously, Moshe refuses this call:

וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי וְגַם־רָאִיתִי אֶת־הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם׃ וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵא אֶת־עַמִּי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָאֱלֹקים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃… וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־ה’ בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד־פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי׃ – “The cry of the Children of Israel has reached Me; I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come! I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt.” But Moshe said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Children of Israel from Egypt?”… Moshe said to God, “Please God, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (3:9-11, 4:10)

This is the beginning of one of the most epic and important stories ever told. Moshe knows where he comes from and has seen his brethren suffering, and his birth and upbringing uniquely situated him to do something about it. No less than the Creator has called on him to greatness, and he refuses; not once, but twice!

How could Moshe possibly refuse the call?

It’s essential to understand that refusing the call is not just a literary trope that humanizes the hero; because this story isn’t ordinary literature. If Moshe could refuse the call, and his refusal is part of this timeless story, it reflects a fundamental property intrinsic to all humans we need to acknowledge and understand.

It wasn’t that Moshe doubted that his people could or should be saved; it’s that Moshe doubted himself. He had fears and insecurities – he didn’t think he was worthy of such a great mission. He didn’t think he had what it takes, and he was missing what he believed to be a key trait to be successful – he wasn’t a man of words! How would he persuade anybody to follow him? How would he advocate for his people to the Egyptian government? This isn’t faux humility – Moshe is articulating an accurate self-assessment; he is right! And yet, the answer seems to be that none of that matters at all, that he has to get on with it just the same.

When the Mishkan was finally ready for inauguration, Ahron refuses the call, feeling ashamed and unworthy, in part because of his complicity in the Golden Calf incident. In the view of our sages, Ahron’s shame was exactly what validated him as the right person; his self-awareness of his shortcomings, and his view of the position deserving gravity and severity. Moshe couldn’t say Ahron was wrong, and only encourages him to ignore those doubts – שֶׁהָיָה אַהֲרֹן בּוֹשׁ וְיָרֵא לָגֶשֶׁת, אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה אַתָּה בוֹשׁ? לְכָךְ נִבְחַרְתָּ.

In the Purim story, Esther also refuses the call, not wanting to risk her life. Mordechai gives her a similar response – she has correctly assessed the facts and is indeed in danger. But that doesn’t matter; the call to action stands open, and someone has got to respond. If Esther focuses on her fears and flaws, then she will lose the opportunity to step up, and someone else will – כִּי אִם־הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית־אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם־לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.

The book of Jeremiah opens with a similar vignette. Jeremiah reports that God appeared to him and called upon him to be that generation’s prophet. Like Moshe, Jeremiah protests that he is just a kid and is not a speaker, and in what we can now recognize as a consistent fashion, God dismisses these excuses – not because they are wrong; but because they ultimately don’t matter – וַיְהִי דְבַר־ה’ אֵלַי לֵאמֹר׃ בְּטֶרֶם אֶצָּרְךָ בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ וּבְטֶרֶם תֵּצֵא מֵרֶחֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּיךָ נָבִיא לַגּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ׃ וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי ה הִנֵּה לֹא־יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי־נַעַר אָנֹכִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר.

The Torah is deliberate in how it presents stories to us; what it leaves in, and also what it leaves out. Of all the small interactions that don’t make the final cut, we should take note that refusing the call is an interaction the Torah deems necessary for us to know about many of our heroes. Our greatest heroes don’t just jump at the chance to do what is so obviously the right thing; whether the right thing isn’t so obvious in the moment, or whether they didn’t eagerly jump for other complex reasons. The Torah’s stories consistently contain a refusal of the call; our legends also experienced doubt and uncertainty, just like we do.

Who is perfect enough to fix the problems you see around your community? Who is perfect enough to lead the people you love to greatness? Ironically, anyone deluded and narcissistic enough to think they are perfect enough would be the worst candidate. The Torah seems to be saying that it has got to be you – אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי.

If you have adequately honed your sensitivities, you recognize you have a lot of work to do and so many people need your help. You might even hear a call to action in your life vibrating deep within, but it’s not enough. You doubt yourself, and you refuse the call. You’re scared – and you should be! There is plenty to be scared of, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The undertaking the Torah calls us to is enormous, too enormous to accomplish on our own; yet it calls on us just the same – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

There is moral fiber in quieting the voice of self-doubt and stepping up to answer the call anyway – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The Torah calls on humans, keenly aware of our fears, flaws, imperfection, and insecurities. We mustn’t engage those self-same fears, flaws, imperfections, and insecurities as excuses to shirk our duty. The Torah repeatedly tells us they just don’t matter; there’s work to do!

Moshe, Ahron, Jeremiah, and Esther all expressed a form of impostor syndrome, the feeling that whatever job you’re in, you’re not qualified for it and that people are going to figure out any minute that you’re a poser with no clue what you’re doing. Your self-awareness serves you well by accurately identifying gaps in your skillset, but does you a disservice by stopping you from trying. You have to silence the doubt in yourself when it gets to the point of holding you back from doing transformational things simply because you’re not quite ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

Our pantheon of heroes is replete with imperfect individuals who had good reasons to refuse the call. Each reason was entirely accurate; we ought to draw immense comfort and power from how universal self-doubt and uncertainty are. The Torah’s consistent thematic response to our greats, and through them to us, echoing and reverberating for all eternity, is simply that there’s work to do, and someone has to do it.

So why shouldn’t it be you?