This week we began reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And accordingly, this week’s parasha is filled with deeply important events that will set the Exodus in motion. But the central figure of parashat Shemot, the central figure of the book of Shemot, is Moses. And yet there are only 22 verses which narrate the story of Moses’ life before god tells him to speak to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage.

But what we do know about Moses is enough for us to realize that the poor boy is going to need some therapy. He was born at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all male children should be drowned. Harry Potter fans take note: Moses was the original model of “the boy who lived.” He was raised between two homes, moving between his enslaved Hebrew family and his adoptive mother at the royal palace. As a young man, he does not know where his allegiance lies, and he runs away to Midian, where he creates a new, quiet life as a shepherd.

Moses clearly does not want to deal with the conflicting identities he experiences in Egypt. There he has only two options – he is either a Hebrew slave or a member of the Egyptian royal family – and neither of these is an attractive option. If god had not sent him back to Egypt, Moses most likely would have become settled in his new identity as a Midianite shepherd, and wouldn’t have even appeared as a minor character in our history.

Moses’ desire to avoid his past is clearly behind his initial rejections of god’s command. When Moses understands that the voice he hears coming from the burning bush is the voice of god, he hides his face in fear, and his first response to god is a question: “mi anochi,” who am I? “Mi anochi ki elech el-Par’oh, v’khi otzi et b’nei Yisrael mi-mitzrayim?” Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the children of Israel from Egypt? It’s a valid question. Moses may speak and understand the language of both the children of Israel and Pharaoh, he may have the knowledge of what it feels like to live among Egyptians and among Hebrews, but the problem is that he does not really belong to either group. Moses’ fear is that the Hebrews will see him as being a privileged member of the royal family, and will not take him seriously. And Pharaoh will see him as being his daughter’s pet Hebrew slave, and will not take him seriously.

God continues to instruct Moses in exactly what he will do on his mission in Egypt, but Moses finally makes his point directly, telling god, “lo ya’aminu li,” they will not believe me! And god’s response is to give Moses three ways to prove his authority to anyone who might challenge it.

When Moses throws down his shepherd’s staff, it turns into a snake, and when he takes it by the tail, it becomes a staff again. When Moses puts his hand on his chest, it becomes white and leprous, and when he does it again, his hand is restored to health. And god tells Moses, but does not demonstrate the third proof: when Moses takes water from the river and pours it on land, the water will turn into blood.

At first reading, the combination of these three things foreshadows the 10 plagues that will follow: the appearance and disappearance of dangerous animals, the onset and removal of illnesses, and finally, the death of the firstborn, which cannot be reversed.
But on a more personal level, I see these things giving inspiration to Moses. His staff, an object of guidance and strength, conceals within it something strong and dangerous. His hand, which seems so alive and useful, conceals within it disease and death. And the very waters that he drinks conceal within them blood.

In each case, something which has the power to support and guide and sustain the living is transformed into something that has the power to destroy. Moses is recognized by god as the one who is capable of supporting and guiding and sustaining the Israelites, but Moses himself tries his hardest to refuse. He has transformed himself into a man with no past, no history, and no responsibility. And that is the destructive power that he conceals.

God’s task is not to convince Moses that he is capable of going back to Egypt to bring the Israelites out of slavery; god’s task is to convince Moses that he is part of that enslaved people suffering in Egypt and that he has a responsibility to rescue those people. Denying his past and forgetting his history does not absolve him of this responsibility. In the end, Moses himself will have to answer his own question, “Mi anochi?” Who am I?

Moses finally concedes, and goes with his brother Aaron back to Egypt. In the process, he returns to being what he was at birth; the son of an enslaved Hebrew family, who is distinctly unwelcome in the palace. Moses’ transformation is complete; after having left his history and responsibility behind, he now returns to claim both, and in doing so, he saves the entire nation.

Every human being has the ability (and sometimes a strong desire) to deny history and avoid taking responsibility for changing the future. But Moses’ example teaches us that we are not doing god’s work when we ignore suffering for the sake of living quiet lives. Through Moses’ transformation, he redeemed the people of Israel. When we act to transform ourselves for good, when we ask ourselves “Mi anochi?” and work towards answering that question, each of us joins in the work of redeeming the world.