This week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Ex. 1:1 – 6:1) picks up the story of the children of Israel long after the death of Joseph and of his brothers. Under a new regime, they are enslaved by the Egyptians and put to hard labor. This chapter introduces us to Moses, a new leader for the people. He is born into a Levite family but raised as the adopted daughter of the Pharaoh. He kills an Egyptian overlord and flees to Midian where he marries the daughter of Jethro the priest. Moses joins Jethro’s family and one day, herding Jethro’s sheep in the wilderness, out of a burning thornbush, Moses sees and speaks with God.
God tells Moses that he has been chosen to free the people Israel from enslavement in Egypt. God gives him specific instructions and assures him. But Moses resists. He is filled with doubts about his ability. Four times, he gives God reasons why someone else should be chosen. But of course, God knows best. Moses will stand up to Pharaoh. He will guide the people Israel from Egypt to the wilderness, to their encounter with God at Sinai, and to the verge of the land which God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The one who called himself “slow of speech” achieves an unmatched eloquence, and dictates the entire book of Deuteronomy. The one who feared he was too insignificant for Pharaoh to heed wins arguments with the God of the universe.
When Moses herded Jethro’s sheep, he could not have imagined that he would become the image of liberation for people all over the world for millennia, but that is exactly what happened. And, though we are not as great as Moses, we each underestimate what we can accomplish. On the day of this secular New Year, let us commend ourselves for how far we have come, and look down the road to the next goal.