Parashat Sh’mot, Mi anochi? Who am I? – 18th January 2020, Mike Levy

Sermon given by Mike Levy on the occasion of his grandson’s baby blessing

Three words..well actually two stand out for me in this week’s reading from Exodus. The words are uttered by Moses. Mi anochi….Who am I? Who am I? is probably the  most important question we can ever ask. Of course we can answer by giving our names. Who am I? Mike Levy of course. But what does that tell us? Just two words to carry me through my life (three if I get that knighthood I so richly deserve). Who am I? Mi Anochi? It’s a very tough question made even tougher if we change the emphasis …..Who am I? and if we add a ‘to’   Who am I to …..? This smacks of self doubt. ‘Who am I to get a knighthood? Who am I to give this sermon?’  Noch!

This week’s parasha is the beginning, more or less, of the Book of Exodus. In Hebrew, ‘Shmot’ or ‘Names’. We’ve skipped the first two chapters in which names are listed – the names in question are the names of the sons of Jacob, names of the 12 tribes of Israel. Shmot, names are very important. I don’t need to tell you that because my guess is that nearly every one of you has a name.

This week’s portion has Moses casually tending his sheep when he spots a small bush fire …(how topical is that). Very oddly, the fire is not damaging the bush itself. It’s enough to make any observant shepherd stop in his tracks.  The bush burning miracle or metaphor as we reform Jews might argue, is packed with meaning.  I have some questions: why would God, about to tell Moses that he will liberate the Israelites from bondage, receive the law and become a great man……why would he do this hiding behind a flaming bush? Why not a pillar of smoke or a some other big-scale Cecil B Demille miracle? Maybe it’s something to do with humility. Maybe he didn’t want to spook Moses too much. Anyway suffice to say the blazing bush draws Moses’ attention to the presence of God who has something important to say to this ordinary chap called Moses.

Moses is given a huge epoch changing task. What a responsibility. What an honour. But how does he respond? He asks God, Mi anochi?  Who am I? Who am I to do these things? Moses is reluctant to accept God’s kind offer, reluctant to become a national hero. And who can blame him?

It is the theme of reluctance that I want to examine today.

Collins dictionary defines reluctance two ways; in physics: a measure of the resistance of a closed magnetic circuit to a magnetic flux, equal to the ratio of the magnetomotive force to the magnetic flux. Surprisingly this is not the sense of reluctance I want to explore today. To be honest I have no idea what any of that means and I am reluctant to find out.

The more conventional definition of reluctance is ‘a lack of eagerness or willingness, disinclination.’ It is a feature of our lives not normally seen in any positive light. Yet reluctance can have incredibly positive outcomes. Imagine if Germany had been reluctant to invade Poland in 1939, or if as a teenager I had been reluctant to choose the arts over sciences….I could have talked at length on the first definition of reluctance.

Reluctance, a lack of eagerness, is a quality or lack of it, which usually is seen as a negative attribute to a person’s soul. It can smack of cowardice, laziness or lack of vision. ‘I am reluctant to get involved’ can mean bad – I am unwilling to break up that fight –  But  reluctance can be good, ‘I am unwilling to accept racist ideas’.

The bad side of reluctance often gets the bigger press. Yet reluctance might sometimes be the cold shower of caution needed in a world of hyper-change. Reluctance can be a sober break on flame-thrown choices. It can be a barrier to hubris and self promotion. You would never catch an ego-centric braggard turning down a challenge using the words, ‘But who am I to do this?’ Of course ‘me’..who else?

Reluctance, in the right circumstances is a strength not a failure of will – a second thought, a chance to re-assess an offer, an attractive humility, an invitation for others to take precedence – ‘Why me? Surely you?’ Reluctance gives us time and space to weigh up the cons. When Fiona asked me to do this sermon, I also said ‘Who am I to do this?’

Back to the portion. God has an important job for Moses. God will send Moses to the Pharoah to urge him to let the children of Israel, enslaved in Egypt, to let them go. Moses reply is interesting;

And Moses said unto God: ‘Mi anochi? Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’

At the beginning of the chapter we are told that Moses is a simple shepherd working for his father in law Jethro. A humble shepherd to go parley with the mightiest king on earth? Who am I? Who indeed?

Moses’ reluctance to take the gig from God without hesitation – without blind obedience – so Jewish that – gives him the breathing space in which is filled, according to the Torah passage, with God giving him some jolly good reasons why he should be the one to go before the pharaoh.  That is a scary thought – after all in Chapter 2 of Shmot we are told that Moses had struck an Egyptian who had been abusing some Hebrews. An angry Pharoah sought revenge and called for Moses to be killed….Moses had to flee Egypt. Now he has to go back, an escaped fugitive, to ask the angry King of Kings to release the Hebrew slaves. No wonder he asks ‘Mi anochi’

So how is Moses persuaded? First Moses gets the reassurance that the contract will include full support from God. ‘Certainly I will be with thee’. There is also a hint in the passage, says Rashi, that just as the bush was not harmed by the fire ,so Moses will not be harmed by the fiery presence of the Pharoah. He may be in a hot frying pan but he is not going into the fire. So Moses gets some reassurances –  I’ll be with you and no harm will come to you.

But Moses has another question hiding behind his reluctance to accept the order from God. What am I going to say to the children of Israel? Why would they listen to me? Who am I? God provides the answer he will need given that he is just a shepherd not a QC.  ‘Tell them the God of your ancestors has sent you to them’.  Good answer. But Moses’ reluctance brings forth another very tricky question he might have to field: what if they ask: ‘this God, what’s his name?’ Moses of course could have bluffed, made up a name, told porkies, OK maybe not porkies, could have waffled on but God gave him a good formulaic answer. ‘”Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be),” and He said, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.’

I am very reluctant to explain why God gives this answer ‘I will be what I will be’ but he goes on to clarify that for the Israelites it is enough for them to know not God’s name but who He is…He instructs Moses to tell the children of Israel,

‘The Lord God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is how I should be mentioned in every generation.

Moses still needs a bit of reassurance that he is the right man for the huge job. God puts more words into his mouth. He will bring the people out of slavery (great thing) to a land flowing with milk and honey (equally great if not greater thing)

Then God, after all these great lines in the God-given script, ends Moses’  reluctance with a clincher. God reassures him  ‘And they will hearken to your voice’

Had Moses accepted the commandment without question then perhaps none of the details, the predictions, guarantees and inducements might have been clear. His reluctance bore fruit.

Reluctance has its role. Embrace it. Of course it’s not always sweetly embraceable. Imagine being a reluctant grandparent? On a day like this, it is unimaginable. When Xander was born not once did I say Mi anochi? Who am I to be a grandparent? I don’t think Sheila said that either?

OK Are there any takeaways from this week’s parasha.

Does the parasha give a blueprint for dealing with reluctance?  I think so. Let me illustrate: Say you are asked to deliver a very important message at a very important meeting. Don’t be afraid to be reluctant to accept the task.

  1. Ask yourself why me? Pros and cons. Strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good start. Maybe you aren’t the best fit for the task.
  2. If it’s a task requiring speaking to someone in authority, think about the kind of questions you might be asked and get advice on how to answer them
  3. List all the really negative things about your task and think of a solution to each – charm yourself into the role.
  4. Think of the advantages to your hearer of the proposal you are going to make. It’s not just about you. It’s about them. Paint them a picture of what you will be able to achieve – go full cream milk and Fortnum’s manukah honey.
  5. And lastly, If you see a burning bush that is not being harmed, stop and take notice.

Before I end, with reluctance, I want to say something about the book of Torah we have just started. And what a book – the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the ten plagues, the Red Sea parting, the journey through the desert and the giving of the law on Mt Sinai. All the great moments from The Ten Commandments. Yet despite these huge events – gargantuan in scale – the fundamentals of our Western civilization – Thou Shalt not Kill, Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy – despite all this, the book’s is called Shmot – Names.

How important are names? In the first two chapters of Shmot, we are told of two baby namings: first that of Moses himself, found as an infant hiding in the bulrushes of the Nile. Quote; ‘And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’

Then we get to hear about the grown up Moses and his first child – a son – ‘and he called his name Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’

Names are important, names have meaning, Names and babies – now I wonder what significance that has for today? Well, who am I to say?