“Mind Your Own Business”
Sometimes seemingly trivial matters of wording are important.
In this week’s reading the Torah recounts how Pharaoh, obsessed with the growing threat posed by the Hebrew slaves in his country, ordered that every newborn boy be cast into the Nile. Moses’ mother tried to hide her newborn son from the authorities, but after three months she decided on a desperate move: she placed him in a specially prepared wooden box which she then floated down the Nile, hoping that some sympathetic soul might manage to save him. And so it was. Pharaoh’s own daughter picked up the baby and adopted him as her own.
(By the way, the story is so familiar that we may lose sight of the fact that in doing all this, Moses’ mother was actually obeying Pharaoh’s decree: he had said, “Cast those male babies into the Nile,” and so she did.)
In any case, Moses grew up in the royal court but, at a certain point, he “went out to his brothers and saw their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers” (Exod 2:11). Here, it seems, the wording is crucial. The verse uses the phrase “his brothers,” not once but twice, perhaps because it is, on the face of things, so improbable. After all, Moses is a pampered Egyptian, someone belonging to the highest echelons of society, who looks out from the royal palace onto a bunch of bedraggled slaves and, in the text’s description, somehow sees them as his “brothers.” What he says in his heart is not merely, “That’s where I came from,” in itself a non-committal observation, nor even “Those are my people,” which might still be uttered from some height and distance, but “Those are my brothers,” implying that he and they are absolutely on the same level. Despite all his royal finery and fancy manners and everything that all other Egyptians and Hebrews would all say is perfectly obvious, Moses insists on this improbability.
A similarly improbable statement occurs a bit later in the story, and in surprisingly similar circumstances.
Moses had killed the Egyptian man and hidden his body in the sand, but he soon learns that word of his act is now spreading, and he is forced to flee Egypt and settle in Midian. There he marries the daughter of Jethro, a “priest” (or perhaps “high official”) of Midian. Now, far from being a helpless refugee, Moses is apparently once again part of the upper crust. Normally, shepherding a flock is a job for a child or a teenager, but—as an ancient midrash explains—Jethro’s flocks were so numerous that Moses has to lead them “beyond the wilderness,” that is, beyond the sparse grassland where other shepherds might graze their flocks, to some more distant spot ample enough for Jethro’s many sheep. In the biblical world, your sheep were your bank account; Moses stands to inherit at least part of this family’s fortune.
But then, God calls to Moses from a burning bush and tells him that he is to go back to Egypt and lead the Israelites to freedom. To this Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
On the face of things, this is a most puzzling response. “Who am I?” Moses, you are the ideal candidate! You grew up in the royal court, Egyptian is your native language, you know the ins and outs of the palace, the Egyptians respect you more than any other candidate imaginable—what do you mean, “Who am I?”
But from Moses’ point of view, the question is altogether relevant. At this moment, he faces a choice. He can ignore this summons and remain in his comfortable surroundings together with his wife and family, or he can listen to a voice coming out of a burning bush, drop everything, and undertake what seems on the face of it a difficult and quite possibly dangerous mission. So indeed, like many people at a certain point in their lives, Moses must now peer into himself to ask a serious question, “Is this the person I am, and is this what the rest of my life looks like?”
Perhaps it’s no accident that, a few moments later, Moses—stalling for time, it seems—tells God he can’t possibly say yes yet, since he doesn’t even know God’s name. Philosophers and theologians have made much of God’s answer, “I am who I am,” but the truth is that this phrase simply means, “Mind your own business, Moses.” (Jacob gets the same answer in Gen 32:30, and Manoah in Jud 13:18). But then God—quoting Himself, as it were—tells Moses, “This is what you must tell the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.” An apparently ungrammatical and altogether gratuitous answer, unless it is intended to evoke Moses’ earlier question, “Who am I?”, with a ringing response: “‘I am’ has sent me to you.”