Moshe is scared. Growing up in a foreign household, with an Egyptian Pharoh as a dad, couldn’t have been easy. Well, I’m sure it was, in a certain sense, but grapes and bubbling hot tea leaf baths aside, his sense of belonging was all messed up. The knowledge that he was part of a nation subjugated and enslaved, while simultaneously experiencing all the glorious majesty of the Egyptian empire, must have made for one confusing set of teenage years. And after deciding to kill an Egyptian “brother”, the threat of imminent death couldn’t have helped. So, as any normal confused individual might have done, he ran away to a well. I mean, the well did wonders for his great grand dads … and as in accordance with ancient right, after saving a few maidens in distress what do you know? Moshe finds himself a wife. Sure beats a blessing from a Rabbi.
The “Egyptian man” (Exodus 2:19) marries Tziporah, and their first boy is born. He is named גרשם, because “I was a stranger in a strange land.”(Exodus 18:3). Not the most settling name. In fact, quite the opposite. Moshe names his son in accordance with one of his deepest yearnings… to belong. To settle. Constantly in flux, Moshe never truly has a home of his own. Alone in Egypt, wandering shepherd in Yitro’s house, and ultimately, traveling teacher through the harsh desert for 40 years. It’s no wonder when G-d comes to Moses to take the reins and be a national figurehead – he says no. One of the primary requirements for a healthy sense of self-esteem and belief in oneself is the sense of emotional security that comes from belonging, a security Moshe never had. So to lead an entire nation out of Egypt? It was beyond his paygrade. “Send (the nation) now, in the hand of whom you shall send,” (Exodus 4:13) Moshe requests from G-d. But G-d wouldn’t hear of it.
Despite being at the center of a constantly nebulous nexus of personalities and homes, there is one thing that is a constant in Moshe’s life. When he sees a person in need, he steps up to the plate. An Egyptian hurting an Ivri? Moshe kills the man. One Jew hitting his brother – “…and he said to the wicked one, why do you hit your friend?” (Exodus 2:13). He runs away to Midyan and immediately stands up for the bullied daughters of Yitro. As our sages tell us, the only reason he sees the burning bush was because he cared enough to run after a single little sheep who wanted a drink. Moshe didn’t belong. And that made him all the more sensitive, gave him all that much more strength to stand up for those like him. For the little guy. It was that sense of not having a place, a home, that simultaneously hurt Moshe, destroying his confidence, yet creating a burning passion to help those in need, to help others feel that they do belong and that someone does care for them. He didn’t stay in his own world. He reached out to other people, felt the pain of those around him, the little streams of hurt and anguish that created the ever flowing, ever changing web of people and environments he found himself in. He was “Moshe”, the one drawn forth from the river, the classic metaphor for flowing change. And perhaps that is why he was chosen.
G-d speaks to Moshe, commanding him to lead the Jewish nation out of Egypt and despite his initial refusal, he finally is convinced to go.. But things get worse for the Jews and once again, Moshe comes back to G-d questioning his part as servant of G-d and the people. But G-d encourages Moshe, and he sticks with it. Numerous times throughout his role as a teacher Moshe doubts his ability to continue to lead, but each time G-d plays the cheerleader, the one who believes in another when that other has no belief in themselves. G-d strengthens Moshe, sends him Aharon and the 70 Elders and, lo and behold, Moshe succeeds. He carries the weight of the nation, the weight of the great multitudes of desires and individual personalities, and he does so brilliantly. When asking G-d to appoint a new leader, Moshe requests that “The G-d of the spirits of all mankind” appoint someone in his stead. As the sages explain, Moshe understood the complexity of leading a great nation, how each individual has their own “spirit”, their own desires and realities, and he therefore asked that the G-d of all spirits, who understands the every heart of every person, appoint a leader who can do the same. Appreciate the uniqueness of the person, while leading the whole, as a nation.
Moshe didn’t belong anywhere. But perhaps that made him the perfect guide for the wandering people, for the tribes that would live in a world of physical and spiritual change for 40 years. He was acutely attuned to the discomfort of the individual, and hence, the nation at large, and was uniquely qualified to teach them the way to live in such a state. To teach them that sometimes, when there’s nowhere to live, everywhere becomes home. That the process, the change, is the home. And perhaps was the best example that life in such a state of flux, in that never ending struggle of constant acclimation, allows not for the devastation of the self, but rather the expansion of it. To include the other. To create a nation, required something more than just moving to the land of Canaan. It required learning to appreciate the process of life, the difficulties and hardships that come with it, and learning how, not in spite of but rather because of, to connect to others who, at the end of the day, are going through much the same. Everyone feels victim at time. Everyone needs a cheerleader. And everyone can be one, as well.
Throughout the generations, the Jew has been tossed around, country to country, exile to exile, until the title “Wandering Jew” became the norm. It’s uncomfortable, it’s derogatory, and now that we have a homeland, a State, it need not be true. But perhaps, perhaps all the years of “wandering” served a purpose. Perhaps the Galut is a necessary part of the Geulah, the experience of constant adaptation, of constant movement, a necessary prerequisite for the building of a nation. Perhaps all the years of travel taught us to appreciate the challenges of life, the difficulties of existence, to feel at home within the pain, within the growth. It taught us to appreciate the process, and to simultaneously feel for the struggle of the other, to expand our awareness and thereby build the internal infrastructure necessary to create an external home. Lasting change without always starts with profound change from within. The exile taught us that before we can have an external sense of belonging to cover over our insecurities, we need to appreciate the lack of belonging, the constant struggle that life is really about, and build our security from within. Only then can we achieve humility enough to reach out and build the homeland on a social and interpersonal level, to connect to one another as a nation as a whole, and only then, be ready for the building of the physical land, the Land of our Belonging.
Moshe yearned his entire life to enter Israel, to finally experience the place where he belonged. Alas, it was not meant to be. He was buried before entering, forever known as Moshe Rabbeinu. Our teacher. Our mentor. Who taught us what it means to be uncomfortable. To live in the nexus of the great web of our multifaceted and ever changing, ever pulsating reality and to use it as impetus to deepen our connections with one another. To appreciate the similar struggle of each and every person, a struggle so individual yet simultaneously such an integral part of our shared humanity. To build a nation.
Moshe taught us that life is hard. A never ending process of growth and change. And that that’s ok. Look to your right and left – everyone else is going through it too. He was Rabbeinu, indeed.