In this week’s Torah portion, Moses receives the call from God to be a prophet, but Moses seems more than a little reluctant to answer the call. He hides his face from God’s presence. He asks, “Who am I to do this?” He asks for God’s name. He asks what he is to do if the Israelites don’t believe him. He points out that he is not a good public speaker.
And finally, he comes out with it: “Please, God, send someone else!” We might think it would be a good thing to be God’s chosen prophet. Why doesn’t Moses agree?
Perhaps part of the problem is with what it means to be a prophet in the first place. Typically, we think of prophets as people who can accurately foretell the future, and the Bible certainly contains evidence that prophets of this type were active in giving predictions, finding lost objects, and other such lucrative and non-controversial occupations. But this is not the type of prophet that God is asking Moses to be. And Moses knows it.
Instead, the job description that God seems to have in mind for “prophet” is more along the lines of “telling people messages from God that they really don’t want to hear.” Moses is asked to approach the Pharaoh — the most powerful man in the world — in order to call him to account for going against the ways of God.
This is the same type of job given to later prophets from Elijah to Jeremiah and from Amos to Zechariah. It often involves scolding kings, angering priests, and upsetting the wealthy. It is not usually good for your health. And, as Moses discovers, it often doesn’t work, or at least not right away.
After hearing all of Moses’s questions, diversions and disqualifications, God gets angry and orders him to take on the job. Moses dutifully goes to Pharaoh and says in God’s name, “Let my people go!”
What is Pharaoh’s response? “Who is this ‘God’? I know no ‘God’! And I will not let the people go!” Instead, Pharaoh imposes more hardships on the Israelites, requiring them to make bricks without providing straw, which virtually guarantees that they will be punished for failing to complete their quota of work.
The Israelites, of course, blame Moses. “Why,” they ask, “have you made life so difficult for us?” And Moses, in turn, blames God. “Why did You harm the people? Why did You even send me?! From the time I came to Pharoah to speak in Your Name, it’s just been bad for everyone!”
God’s response? “Pharaoh will let the people go. Eventually.”
As we turn to the end of the Torah reading, we see that all of Moses’s fears have been realized. All the reasons he was reluctant to take the job turn out to be right. Pharaoh does not listen to him, things get worse than ever for the people, the Israelites turn on him, and freedom and justice are not achieved.
What are we to learn from Moses’s experience as we search for our own prophetic voices? Speaking truth to power turns out not to be so easy. There are always reasons for not speaking up. Results, especially immediate ones, are not at all assured.
And it takes an incredible act of faith to believe that justice will come when it is so often delayed. In spite of all of that, we, like Moses, cannot remain silent.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected].