It is a lovely coinciding of our inner and outer worlds that we begin a new book of the Torah just as the new secular year begins: a fresh page, a fresh day, all kinds of possibilities. And yet, as we enter Parshat Shemot and the book of Exodus, it takes us all of seven verses before we come to the constriction traditionally associated with the Israelites' experience of Egypt. We are told, "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8), and this new king immediately does two things: First, he appeals to the latent fear among his fellow Egyptians, warning them that the Israelites are a foreign nation, who are bent on taking over and likely to ally themselves with Egypt's enemies. Then he sets up internal systems, a bureaucracy of taskmasters and various kinds of hard labor, to neutralize the Israelites and keep them contained and powerless.
This combination -- of stoking fear, and then creating a system to contain the object of that fear -- is a highly effective paradigm for seekers of power. As human beings, we are particularly adapted to identifying possible threats. Even though there are so many things we could respond to, we tend to respond first to fear, a tendency rooted in deep-seated reflexes in the sympathetic nervous system that control our "fight, flight, or freeze" response. The terrible brilliance of Pharaoh and his spiritual descendants is in creating systems that harness our natural attention to fear, and turn it into hate that can be put into organized action against our enemies -- both real and imagined.
These days it seems that the forces of fear and hatred are in ascendance in so many parts of the world, and would-be power seekers from many camps are shrewd in capitalizing on the fear and hatred they first sow. So often, we respond -- as we are wired to do -- from the natural place of "fight, flight, or freeze." We lash out at our perceived enemies with fervor and passion. We decide it is just too much for us, and stop reading the paper or watching the news. Or we stand paralyzed, not knowing what to do in -- and with -- our powerlessness.
We have to seek a different paradigm -- and the story of Moses can help us. Although early in his story he does indeed resort to both fight (by lashing out to kill the Egyptian he sees beating one of his kinfolk) and flight (by running away to Midian when he fears he will be punished for this rash action), he comes into his glory as a leader in a different way. He is able to completely disrupt the usual order of things. While others dare not question Pharaoh's absolute power, Moses calmly comes into Pharaoh's presence with his demand of liberation. He oversees the interruption of nature, through the plagues that were visited upon Egypt. And he leads a ragtag group of frightened slaves out of the system that enslaved them.
Of course, Moses had God on his side. That is not necessarily comforting to us; we all know that some of the greatest atrocities in our time are committed by those who claim to act on behalf of God. But might imagine God through the lens of the Divine Name offered in Exodus 3:14. "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh", I will be what I will be: dynamic, open to new possibilities, fresh. The name itself embodies a refusal to be stuck. Perhaps this side of God is what allows Moses to defy the cruel authority, subvert the laws of nature, and turn history on its head.
Moses was primed to connect with God as dynamic possibility. He embodied hitlamdut, fully engaged curiosity -- a quality which is also a powerful antidote to fear. Even before God calls out to Moses from the burning bush, Moses himself notices that it was burning but not consumed. He turns to investigate the curious sight, and it was only when God sees that Moses had turned to look that God calls to him (Exodus 3:2-4). Upon hearing the voice of God, Moses is indeed afraid, and he hides his face (3:6) -- but he does not run away; he does not get riled up; he does not freeze. He waits to see what will happen next, to hear what will be revealed.
When we seek alternatives to the structures of fear and hate, we cannot just substitute another attempt at absolute power. We have to cultivate different ways of interacting with whatever we don't like or understand. By aligning ourselves with the Divine Name, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, we remind ourselves that things change all the time. By cultivating fully engaged curiosity, we can receive new insights, imagine new paradigms of power, and conceive of new solutions. May all this help us bring light and hope to our world -- an offering for the new secular year, from a new exploration of an ancient story.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.