Moses fled his life from Egypt and in Midian assumed the quiet life of a shepherd. When he encountered what our tradition has called the “burning bush,” Moses began his transformation into a leader able to confront the all powerful Pharaoh. What led him to radically reshape his life yet again? In this Midrashic Monologue, Moses reflects upon that illuminating, transformational moment.
In the map of my life, there are moments - flashpoints - when everything changed, and my path was irrevocably altered. The most important of my many transformations occurred in the wilds of Midian, as I stood, speechless, in the middle of a herd of sheep. It was there, in that wasteland, that I saw my purpose in life clearly for the first time. Years before, I had fled the oppressive uncertainty of my old life in Egypt, running into the wilderness, seeking wide open spaces. There I met my new family, and I embraced a new life. I breathed in the dry desert air, kept my head to the ground, and tended to the flocks of my father-in-law Jethro, fulfilling his instructions, doing his work. My days were quiet and peaceful.
Still, for all the calm that I found in my years in Midian, I couldn’t rid myself of a gnawing feeling inside that I was forgetting something. I worked hard to suppress it and to shake off the growing awareness that I knew not who I was. It was as if I was filled with shadows, but I could not see the light that cast them. On the day it happened, I went about my business as I always did, following and tending to Jethro’s flocks. I was lost in my own mental meanderings, until, unexpectedly, I lifted up my eyes, expecting to see the mountainside but instead saw only inward, my view of the wilderness obscured by the reflection of my own soul. As I watched, the fire at the center of my nefesh was rekindled. The life I had been living was transformed. I was aflame but in no danger of burning out. I had become an eternal light.
Now, years later, as I guide my people through the wilderness, I still wonder what made me look up to the mountain on that illuminating day. For so long, I cared only for my wife and her family, my sons and our flocks. The unpredictable passion, a fire that once burned in my youth, which led me to kill an Egyptian slavemaster for striking an Israelite slave, had been extinguished in Midian, doused by the monotonous and comforting work of the day to day. I learned to quiet my thoughts as I searched for the centered solace I so desperately desired. As the son-in-law of Jethro, I had become a man focused only on finding the next footholds, ignoring everything besides my path ahead. I have often asked myself: Why at that moment did I take my eyes off my flock and look up? How did I break through the haze of my uneasy happiness to begin to see clearly? Sometimes I think it was just my guilt that finally exploded into a burning flame, pushing me to face my people’s plight. For too many years, I had ignored the fact that while I had been given the opportunity to wander peacefully amidst the desert beauty, my people were still suffering, brutally enslaved by a grandfather whom I had once loved. I discovered in this moment of rekindling that though calm and seemingly content, I hated who I had become, because in order to find that calm, I had walled off part of my essential being. On that day, when I looked up and saw only inward, I realized that I couldn’t escape who I was before - an accomplice in the oppression of a people. I came to hate who I had become; I couldn’t escape the disappointment I felt toward myself. How could I have run away? Why had I traded self-righteous anger for self-focused simplicity? How could I have allowed myself to pretend that things were normal?
The fire that burned inside of me once again told me ehiyeh asher ehiyeh, to remember that I am who I am. I realized in that moment that I had to accept the truth and responsibility, and a measure of shame too, that I was still the very same Moses who had been capable of killing to protect another. Terrified with my own power, I felt the need to rise up and speak out for the downtrodden. The fire demanded that I move quickly to teach the tormentors that compassion must commence, that justice must be served. I stood in the desert, eyes lifted, seeing within myself, and I burned. Listening to the voices within, I remembered my allegiance to my ancestors - my true ancestors, not the false pantheon my grandfather, the Pharaoh, encouraged me to worship.
I was, Moshe ben Yocheved v’Amram. I was heir to the transcendent truths passed down from Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Rachel and Leah. I was born into a people enslaved in a foreign land, and I would not stand idly by any longer.
When I returned to the camp that night, I told my wife Zipporah and my father-in-law Jethro that that the time had come for me to return to my home. It was time to share my fire with the man who I had known as my grandfather. It was time for me to demand that he let my people go.