By Rori Picker Neiss
Moses, the hero (at least flesh-and-blood hero) of our Passover story, has only a singular mention in the entire Passover Haggadah-- within the context of a biblical quote.
On some level, this fact should not be surprising to us. Moses is well-known for his humility. Famously, in the Bible, when God first revealed Godself to Moses at the burning bush, “Moses hid his face - ויסתר משה פניו” (Exodus 3:6). In fact, the Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (Vilna 1:5) teaches that it was for that reason, for Moses’s very humility, that God chose to send Moses as God’s messenger to Pharaoh: “ועתה לכה ואשלחך אל פרעה והוצא את עמי בני ישראל ממצרים - And now go, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).
However, Rabbi Elazar points out that there is an extra letter “ה” in the word לכה - go. He expounds that the extra letter serves to emphasize the word. Moses must go to free the Israelites from Egypt, because if he were not to go, no one else could go in his place. This is not merely a suggestion from God or even an exhortation, but an imperative.
As women, we are often ascribed Moses’s humility, at the very least outwardly if not inwardly-- “והאיש משה ענו מאד מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה - Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). In recent weeks, building up to the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s much-debated new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, there has been a lot of discussion around the culture of women in the workplace. Sandberg cites research that shows that women who advocate for themselves and push themselves forward are viewed as less likeable, thus hurting their careers in the long-run.
To be sure, the humility of Moses is praised and exalted. Yet, Rabbi Elazar raises a very real tension in this Midrash: Could it be that had Moses refused to go to Pharaoh, as he does initially, “then we, our children, and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt” (Passover Haggadah)? For if that is the case, then is Moses’s humility truly something that should be praised?
And so, the charge for us-- for all of us, women and men-- is not simply, as Sandberg urges,that we should not get up from the table, but that we cannot get up from the table.
As we sit at the Passover seder this year, recalling that our ancestors were enslaved and oppressed, as we recite the words that “had God not released us from bondage, we ourselves would remain enslaved today,” let us also remember that one man who, despite protestations, stepped up to the role that the world needed him to play.
And in our world, in which it is often difficult to decipher God’s messages, let us ask ourselves what roles we are called to play. What have we been too “humble” to take on? What tables have we walked away from? Most importantly, what are the tasks that only we are able to perform? Because, as we remember at the Passover seder, the consequences of inaction may simply be too great to bear.