Transformation Lessons from Moses and Passover


A black figure kneeling in front of illuminated stained glass.

Credit: WikimediaCommons / Richard Simon.

There are many ways to interpret the epic story of Moses hearing God’s voice at the Burning Bush. For this Passover season, I share one way that I understand this story and its meaning to our lives in the present time.
Moses, who grew up as a prince of Egypt, had witnessed violence and abuse of the Israelite slaves and was horrified by it – as any person who has not hardened his/her heart would understandably be. Out of rage, horror and grief, Moses reacted by killing an Egyptian who was abusing the slaves. He is then forced to flee the palace (his life of privilege, the only life he has known). Though he was able to create a new and somewhat comfortable life for himself married to the daughter of one of the chief priests of Midian, he could not forget what he had experienced in Egypt. So while tending the sheep of his father-in-law’s house, one lamb wanders off and he chases it as it wanders up a mountain (that tradition later identifies as Sinai). There he experiences most fully the burning message in his heart that simply refuses to burn out. Moses envisions it as a burning bush that is not consumed, and from that fire within he hears a voice that tells him he is to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let his people go.
Moses, like any of us hearing a call to something much greater than ourselves, argues with the voice – no, I’m not up to the task. I stutter. I can’t articulate myself well. Who am I to take on this task?, I need to enhance my skills. I have to do my internal work before working to transform the world.” What the voice says is essentially, “you are right, you are not perfect. You, like everyone else on this planet, are imperfect. You have your flaws. And, you see the suffering and pain in the world and it is tearing you apart. You have no choice but to do whatever you can in your capacity at this time to try to free the slaves.”
I can imagine thinking, “who does this voice think I am? That’s so egotistical to think that I can make such a big difference. No one is going to listen to me –I’m a suspected murderer in Egypt.”
Despite his greatest efforts, Moses cannot silence the voice. And so he decides to heed the message of the voice and begin the process of working towards his goal of freeing the slaves. Once he steps into his power a lot of things unfold. Miracles happen that make it increasingly hard for Pharaoh to ignore the impact of his behavior on his own people and ultimately on his own family. So he agrees to let the slaves leave.
As you know, the story does not end there. Moses then leads the slaves out of Egypt and the long journey in the desert begins. (Midrash, stories written that elaborate on the Torah, tells us that there were many non-Israelites among those who fled and many more Israelites and others who stayed behind, unwilling to heed the call to freedom.) During the time in the desert, Moses is not perfect. He loses his temper with the Israelites. He yells at and fights with the voice of YHVH (the Transformative Power that some call God and which is the force in the universe that makes for the possibility of transformation from “that which is to that which could and should be.). He doubts his capacity to deliver on the promise of freedom and a safe haven.
The process of transforming the world, transforms Moses. Through the process, his skills enhance. He learns to rely on others and they begin to play a role in ensuring the transformation from an enslaved people to a free people. He goes through a growth process that was not possible had he first spent years delving into his own inner life and experience to become the fullest, most spiritually grounded and whole being. Our spiritual awakening is inextricably tied to the freedom and well-being of all beings, to which we play an intrinsic part.
Jumping ahead a few months, we come to Mt. Sinai and again Moses is given a message – this is not a message for Moses alone, this is a message for all peoples. For how to live an ethical, spiritually rich, just, and environmentally sustainable life. Why is it important that Moses and the people of Israel receive this message? Because without it we will lose our way. We will get distracted by the pretty colors, the possibility of more stuff, more money, etc. Just look what happens when Moses fails to return to the camp when the Israelites expected him – they build a golden calf – how quickly we lose trust, how quickly we get distracted.
The message of the tablets, the message of Mt. Sinai is one for all of us. Again, it is not a message to only commit to a spiritually engaged life. That is part of the message and it is an important part because without some ethical and moral grounding the golden calf of the day (in this time, global capitalism) will pull us away from our highest selves. So the message tells us to remember to engage in regular practices and activities so that we remain committed to what is most important – caring for and loving the stranger, living a just and ethical life, ensuring the well-being of the planet and each other – because without these practices we will forget.
But, the message doesn’t end there. The message also sets forth concrete ways to live to ensure that the values we are supposed to remember are more than mere words on tablets or words that we speak.
So, for me, the message of Moses is that we all have an obligation to work to transform the world, even when we don’t think we have the skills, even when we are scared, even when we are not perfect. We will lose our temper, we will make mistakes, but in the process of our work to transform the world, we will also grow, we will increase our capacity to contribute in a meaningful way, we will develop the inner fortitude to challenge the voices that are calling us away from our highest selves. Moses wasn’t called to do this for himself. He didn’t go and work on himself until he was ready for the task. He stepped up to the challenge because that is what was needed then. And it is what is needed now.

Cat Zavis is the Executive Director of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

5 thoughts on “Transformation Lessons from Moses and Passover

  1. Thank you, this is the kind of writing that I love to read on Tilkun Blog the most, a dvar Torah. I agree that conscious positive action is in itself spiritually transformative in a way that mental preparation and study can only aspire to be. You do a small Tilkun Olam mitzvah, you see how it helped a situation, and you are reinforced and stimulated to continue the work.

  2. Isn’t it true that there is no evidence that Moses even existed, that the Jews were actually enslaved in Egypt or anything else that happened in Exodus? Why do we chose a mythical bible story for our inspiration. Weren’t there enough real Jewish leaders and heroes to draw upon for inspiration?

    • Mark, I am very much with you on that. Of course ,that is not to take away from any one else who wishes to believe and follow such stories. But the facts are the facts in today’s world, we know what ethics and values are, we mostly know what’s wrong and what is right when we hear it, see it or do it our selves . I think the writer intentions and interpretation seem to be noble and honorable in their goal. I have seen Gidon Levy speak in Washington last week, he said;” we all speak about Jewish values, as if nobody else has them, I only know universal values, and they work for me” its not exactly per word, but that was the content. Jewish people( many of them) think that Tikkun Olam is only been given to them, and them alone, that is a problem , not only for others, but should be for Jewish people too. When you separate and isolate yourself, don’t be surprised if others will do the same, and more often than not, not in a very good way. Justice, freedom and peace should be for all and by all not just few!

  3. Mark – It is not important to me if Moses really existed or not. What is interesting to me about the story is what we can learn from it. I shared some things in the blog that I think we can glean from the story. I also believe that the fact that Jews tell this story over and over again and teach it to their kids is powerful in and of itself because what this story teaches us is that the world is not fixed, that there is a force of transformation in the universe and that all of us have a role to play in contributing to that transformation. It teaches us that although the powers that be will tell us again and again that this is the way the world has to be and that it cannot be changed (i.e., economic, political and/or social systems are fixed and not changeable) is actually not true. That is why again and again the elite in various countries have been afraid of Jews – because we tell people that things can change and that we need to engage in efforts to make those changes. That is a radical theology that I love being a part of, regardless of whether Moses lived or not.

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