We see in Parshat Shemot perhaps the most intimate moment between Hashem and one of our forefathers. The first words Hashem speaks to Moshe are: “Moshe, Moshe.”1 We understand from an earlier Rashi, in Breishiet2, that with this repetition, Hashem not only expresses his affection for Moshe, but He also indicates that Moshe’s name is the same in the spiritual realm as it is on earth. In other words, Moshe is a living reflection of who he was created to be. He has become who he needs to be in order to fulfill Hashem’s purpose for him. What is it that Moshe has achieved – with his stutter, with his Egyptian name and upbringing – that he is chosen to serve such an important role by Hashem?
Moshe is anav (ענו) which is often translated as humble. We are told he is the humblest person alive.3 He also writes about himself in the Torah “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe.”4 On the trait of anavah, Rav Gershenfeld said, humbleness is not thinking one is worthless. It is acknowledging one’s gifts, understanding how much one has yet to achieve, and recognizing that all of one’s gifts come from Hashem. It is true ego-abjection; to live anav is to see truly, to speak and act only truth, to break away from one’s preconceptions about oneself and the world. In many ways, anav ironically represents the absence of labels. It is our ego that wants to be labeled as such and such: categorized and compared to those around us. It colors our perception of the world. When we are anav we simply see what is. Being anav is how we come to fulfill Hashem’s purpose for us, which is the fulfillment of our truest desires and truest self. Throughout Parshat Shemot, we see time and again Moshe’s trait of anavah. Moshe removes his ego from the picture and simply sees. He simply is what Hashem made him to be, nothing more, nothing less. With this trait he is able to become a channel through which he can fulfill Hashem’s purpose for him – the purpose that we all truly want to fulfill in this world. For only when we align with this purpose can we experience true contentment and true joy.
Raised in Pharaoh’s home, Moshe was raised in luxury. Rashi tells us that Moshe was appointed master of Pharaoh’s household.5 Yet Moshe did not succumb to apathy; he did not turn his eyes away from the suffering around him. The Torah writes that Moshe “saw into their [the Jewish people’s] burdens” and Rashi comments to say that “he [Moshe] placed his eyes and heart so as to be distressed over them.”5 It is our first look into the character of Moshe and it is a beautiful expression of empathy. It is not simply enough to see suffering. We must feel when we see it. Often our first reaction to witnessing suffering is to steel our hearts. After years in Pharaoh’s household, such a reaction might have been expected for Moshe, especially since his comfortable life depended on him NOT seeing. Yet, he actively placed his eyes and heart so that he might be distressed. In reality, his empathy is also an aspect of his being anav. He saw the truth of the situation, not what he wanted to see, not what was most beneficial for him to see. We should be distressed when we behold suffering. If we find numbness inside, we must introspect until we find within ourselves our natural feeling of empathy.
It is no coincidence that the very man chosen for the task of freeing Am Yisrael is a man who never spent a day in slavery. If Hashem wanted fire and passion one might think an ex-slave would have been the best choice. After all, we would expect such a man to do anything to enact vengeance on his former captors. However, the purpose of Moshe’s position was not to enact vengeance, it was to enact truth. For the sake of truth, Moshe is perfect. He understands the Egyptians. He grew up amongst them. If anything, he likely empathizes with them. Yet he has also demonstrated his empathy for his own people. He wishes no one ill. Thus, Hashem can give him power knowing fully that Moshe has no egotistical desire to enact suffering on anyone. To the degree that Moshe’s ego is alive, he cannot be a conduit for Hashem’s will. All that Moshe does is simply an expression of Hashem’s will, not his own. He simply sees what is and acts accordingly.
The Torah writes that it is a result of this trait that Hashem speaks to Moshe. Moshe comes upon a burning bush in the fields as he grazes his sheep. He notices this is not a simple burning bush, but rather a bush that is burning and yet is not being consumed.6 The very nature of this sign is that it can only be a sign to one who has no preconceptions, someone without an ego. How many of us would simply see a burning bush, chalk it up to the dry season, and move on? To see that fire does not consume requires one to observe beyond the fire. Moshe says, “let me turn aside now and see this great sight.”7 The Torah then writes “Hashem saw that he turned aside to see and Hashem called out to him….”8 It is because Moshe turned to see that Hashem speaks to him. In that moment Moshe demonstrated to Him the very traits that lead Hashem to address Moshe: “Moshe, Moshe.”
In the parashot to come, we behold how, in many ways, Moshe sacrifices his entire existence to Hashem. He becomes Hashem’s mouthpiece. He aligns his will fully with Hashem’s will. He comes to embody his purpose so fully that Hashem speaks to Moshe face to face.3 And yet, this sacrifice was Moshe’s greatest joy. It should also be our greatest joy, the ultimate pleasure. If it is not, then likely we are misaligned. We express as much when we say, in the Shabbat morning Shemoneh Esrei, “Moshe will rejoice with the gift that was his portion, for a faithful servant you called him.”9 The greatest gift for Moshe was simply recognition for all that he sacrificed to Hashem.
That Moshe was anav and that he fulfilled his purpose was no coincidence. Only when we cultivate anavah can we truly walk the path set for us in this world. In the end, anavah may be the most important trait, for in many ways, it is simply the recognition of who we are without any preconceptions or labels. May we all merit to be anav, to see clearly, and to fulfill Hashem’s unique purpose for us in this world.
- Shemot 3:4
- Rashi, Bereshit 46:2
- Numbers 12:3
- Deuteronomy 34:10
- Rashi: Shemot 2:11