(Cortesy: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)
Every great leader must maintain his or her own precarious and perpetually shifting balance between the debilitations of humility and the cravings of ego. “Who am i to lead these people?” and “God, Himself, has chosen Me!” To choose either spells disaster for both the leader and the led. Nowhere do we see this more excruciatingly played out than in the career of one who is arguably the greatest leader of all time─Moses. The paradigm Jewish leader—despite his literal election by God—is portrayed as staggeringly humble. Indeed, the name of Moses, by tradition, is not mentioned even once in any decent Passover Haggadah.
It is just this dilemma that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (d. 1810) addresses in his K’dushat Levi for this week’s portion. (For the Berditchever, this is no mere theoretical exercise—he is also hammering out what will become the ground rules for any would-be tzaddik or rebbe in a new movement of religious revival called Chasidism.) After God’s appearance in the flames of the bush and the ensuing divine summons to lead the Jewish people to freedom, Moses not unreasonably asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . ?” (Exodus 3:11). (“Have you seen that guy? He’s Jabba the Hutt!”) But instead of sending a sign, God only says, “This will be a sign for you that I have sent you, once you’ve brought them out from Egypt, you’ll come and worship God here at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). (Moses must think to himself, “Thanks, but after I’ve brought them out, I won’t need a sign!”)
Levi Yitzchak, however, uses precisely Moses’s apparently unanswered question as an opportunity to contemplate the nature of genuine religious leadership. He begins his teaching with what might also serve as Judaism’s reply to meditative stillness.
In sharp contrast to an ersatz Buddhism lately masquerading as Jewish spirituality that claims, “Wherever you go, there you are,” comes Hasidism’s answer, “Wherever you go, you’re not there yet!” Or, in the words of the great contemporary Israeli Talmudist and kabbalist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind” (The Thirteen Petalled Rose, trans. Yehuda Hanegbe [New York: Basic Books, 1980], p. 131). Indeed, Steinsaltz goes so far as to say that “someone who has stopped going—he who has a feeling of . . . a great light from above that has brought him to rest—to be someone who has lost his way” (p. 132).
This is because Judaism unceasingly—indeed, almost compulsively—strives for ever-higher levels of consciousness, devotion, and practice. Striving is an endless and lifelong process. A would-be serious Jew is perpetually conscious of what he lacks. And his or her only spiritual question is, “Now what?” The Berditchever cites a tradition teaching that even the spiritual exemplar par excellence, Elijah, or Eliyahu [who, by the way, is likened by the Rabbis to a second Moses], exclaims, “I know nothing of You at all!” And just this is the highest form of awareness! For this reason we are well advised to distrust anyone who claims to have found the way or the answer.
This theme of ceaseless yearning is further implied in the very name of God that God shares with Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh (Exodus 3:14) . Often mistranslated as the static “I am that I am,” this Name is actually nothing more than the Hebrew verb “to be” in the future tense (which, in Hebrew, is technically the imperfect tense, which is to say that the verbal action is not yet complete). In other words, the Name God gives to God’s self at the bush might reasonably be rendered as: “I am not yet who I am not yet.” And thus, those who would serve such a God must themselves likewise endure a perpetual state of becoming, striving, not knowing, and yearning.
The Berditchever then develops this idea by citing an odd (and possibly corrupt) word in Psalm 48:15, “He [God] will be our guide al-moot, ‘until death,’” or perhaps, “He guides olamot, ‘worlds.’” But the word might also be deliberately misread as “He guides almut, ‘children.’” The Baal Shem Tov [d. c. 1760], progenitor of Chasidism, expounding on this creative misreading of almut as “children,” used to teach that, like a parent teaching his or her child to walk, “no sooner does the child take a few steps toward the parent than the parent lovingly moves backwards, urging the little one to take a few more steps.” Thus life (and God) constantly coax us to continue growing, reaching, and moving on. And, in the same way, teaches Levi Yitzchak, the righteous are continuously aware of their deficiencies, ever striving to improve themselves.
And this brings us (and the Berditchever) to Moses’s apparently unanswered question: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” The question is obviously spoken from the great man’s humility and his keen awareness of his own inadequacy. And here, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers us a preposterously simple yet profoundly chastening answer. We must read it as if God, in effect, says to Moses that the question is itself the answer! “Just this will be the sign that I have sent you,” says God. “Because You, Moses, are humble enough to ask and truly believe, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ means that you are precisely the right one for the task. Don’t you understand? Moses, your asking, ‘Who am I?’ is itself “the sign that I am sending you!”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality including a new novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story ( New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).