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The Call from Pure Being
Or: Leadership Doesn't Mean Not Being Afraid
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
When Moses goes to Midian, he is a man on the run.
He killed an Egyptian, in a fumbled attempt to help the enslaved Israelites, and when his actions were discovered, everything went sideways.
In Midian, he meets and marries Tzipporah, becomes a part of her family. He and Tzipporah have a child, he tends his father-in-law’s flock. It is a quieter life, but one can only imagine that he is haunted by the ongoing suffering of his brethren happening elsewhere, far away, in Egypt.
Perhaps he feels lost and adrift, unsure of his purpose now. Or perhaps he’s retreated into his failure, given up on the possibility of making anything better, and has decided to try to focus on his own comfort and hearth. A despair, a resignation. We don’t know.
We do know that he is in this place—a soft pause between everything that’s happened and everything yet to come—when he sees something curious, strange.
It’s a bush burning, unconsumed by fire. God calls from the midst of the bush, and tells Moses that God has a task for him:
He’s to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
We all have this idea, I think, that if God showed up one day to offer us a job, we’d feel pretty comfortable saying yes. There’s not a lot of ambiguity about whether or not one is a good match for a gig if the recruitment happens by way of divine revelation, after all.
And yet. Not even a theophany is enough for Moses, who likely can only think of his last attempt at intervention; he effected no change, he was sneered at by those he attempted to help, and he ultimately had to run for his life. His noble intentions proved vastly insufficient for the task at hand, and he retreated into the shepherding life in the wake of this failure.
As my own teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l), observed, Moses refuses God’s appointment of his destiny not one, not two, but five times over the course of a long and winding conversation. First, he protests,
“Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the people of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)
Who am I? He genuinely believes that he doesn’t have anything valuable to offer this struggle. And yet, God reassures him, God will be with him, there’s no need to fear.
“And God said, ‘I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.’” (Exodus 3:12)
But it’s not enough.Moses doesn’t think that he has enough information, enough credibility to manage the work.
Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13)
He thinks that he doesn’t know enough; that he can’t go until he has every last possible data point. God patiently answers this—and this is an interesting moment, actually, in the development of the divine self-consciousness, if you’ll allow me a brief tangent. I’ll quote the text and then explain.
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” God continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”
And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Tetragrammaton-Name-of-God, the deity of your fathers, the deity of Abraham, the deity of Isaac, and the deity of Jacob, has sent me to you:
This shall be My name forever,
This My appellation for all eternity….
First God says, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, which literally translates to, “I will be that which I will be,” and then tells Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Israelites, “I Will Be sent me to you.”
And then it’s like the character of God caught Godself and realized that that… didn’t sound quite right, having Moses refer to God in the first person like that, and instructed Moses to refer to God as the Tetragrammaton, what Jews refer to as the great, unspeakable name of God. It’s the one that we usually SAY as Adonai because we’re so busy not pronouncing the actual Tetragrammaton (which is comprised of four letters that are very different indeed from Adonai. Adonai means “My Lord,” which is why LORD is the common translation for God’s name into English—which is kind of hilarious, as it’s a translation of the thing Jews say INSTEAD of saying God’s name.) Some Jews also sometimes refer to God as HaShem, aka “the Name” which is also a way of referring to this unspeakable Divine Name, particularly since Adonai is the thing we say in liturgical contexts, and HaShem might be reserved for more casual use.
God’s actual name—the Tetragrammaton—is, in fact, a combination of letters that gets us, in a way, to the Hebrew for the verb “to be” sort of conjugated in past, present and future tenses sort of all at once. (No, that’s not a thing in any other context.) Hayah (was), Hoveh (is) Yihiyeh (will be). God’s name is all three combined, in a way.
So God’s name is—pure being.
God’s name is also the sound of breathing, of breath. That’s what would happen if you tried to pronounce the name.
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So God, in this narrative, starts to tell Moses that God’s name is “I will be that which I will be,” then realizes that telling Moses to pass that on in the first person isn’t quite right, and then gives us the Tetragrammaton, which is a third person way of expressing the same thing. Pretty cool, no?
In any case, even this is not enough to quell Moses’ doubts. He’s still not sure.
But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: God did not appear to you?” (Exodus 4:1)
God and Moses go back and forth for some time—Moses is worried that he won't be taken seriously, that he doesn't have the right skillset. In the end, Moses panics, and says,
"Please, my Lord—send whoever you will send [besides me].” (Exodus 4:13)
He asks God straight up to give the job to someone else and to let him off the hook. Moses is terrified of the work in front of him—the work of freeing the Israelites, of standing up to Pharaoh—and he just wants to get out of it, any way he can.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once experienced doubt and fear that's not too different from what Moses struggles with, here. Overwhelmed by the very real challenges and costs involved in the Civil Rights movement, he began to wonder if, perhaps, he, too, could get God to send someone else to the work. As he wrote in his book Stride Toward Freedom,
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
What made both Moses and Dr. King great leaders was not that they weren't afraid. It wasn't that they didn't want to quit. It wasn't that they never doubted themselves.
It's that, despite all of these things, they stepped up for the people who needed them. Despite being terrified by their awesome responsibilities, they were ultimately able to find the inner resources necessary to choose the work in the end.
In the end, Moses makes his way to Egypt and confronts Pharaoh—and failure—again and again.
Dr. King is able, alone at the kitchen table late at night, to turn aside to hear the ever-present, ever-burning bush whisper—sending a message of true, eternal being. As he prayed, he said,
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."
The holy fire is summoning us at all times—we just have to be brave enough to turn aside and see it.
Or perhaps we just need to be quiet enough to hear the most Sacred Name in our own breath, in the pure being and the stillness of now.
Are we brave enough to get quiet enough to see? To hear?
What that fire may ask of us may not be easy, or comfortable. It might trigger our deepest insecurities, our fears about our own legitimacy and value. It might demand a cost that seems too high to bear.
But if we're open, we may find ourselves being called into greatness—into the work of helping to liberate, into the work of transforming the world. There is no more sacred call.
For, as God told Moses, "Certainly, I will be with you," and as God told Dr. King, "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever."
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