How is a burning bush like a job interview?
Job interviews often are stressful. You might be asked questions you’re not fully prepared for. You might feel like you’re in the hot seat. Maybe you even break a sweat. But it probably wasn’t as scary as the job interview in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.
But I’m willing to bet the person interviewing you was not actually on fire.
Not on real fire…and not on magic fire, either. Nor were they using talking bush as an intercom.
Hey, nobody’s perfect. Most people don’t have the same kind of job interview/ job offer scenario that Moses did. Then again, most people don’t get job offers at age 80 – for a job they didn’t even apply for!
Nevertheless, I believe this week’s Torah portion has useful ideas for anyone who aspires to leadership and service to others, and it may even help you out in your next job interview, whether with a human being or a burning bush.
Shemot is the name of the first parashah in Sefer Shemot, also known as the Book of Exodus. You can find this reading in your Humash, Tanakh, or Bible in Exodus 1:1-6:1.
In this parashah we learn about the flourishing of Jacob’s descendents in Egypt, Pharaoh’s change of heart against them that led to their enslavement, and God’s drafting of Moses into leading our people from slavery to freedom.
It is in this last context that Moses finds himself in a cave, talking to – well, mostly listening to – a burning bush.
Now, it’s not really the bush talking. It’s God.
But at this moment God chooses to communicate with Moses through a symbolic avatar, a humble desert shrub, a hearty thorn bush. The thorn bush is on fire, but the fire is not consuming it.
One can see in this image a representation of B’nei Yisrael – the progeny of Jacob – who dwell in Egypt. They are humble and sturdy and perhaps occasionally abrasive, as we’ll discover in, well, the rest of the Torah. At the present moment, Egypt is afflicting them with labor quotas and harsh population control measures, yet their numbers and strength have not diminished; they are not consumed. Still, in their despair they have called out to God, and God has remembered the Covenant with their ancestors.
But to redeem them from captivity and get them back to the Promised Land, God’s going to need a human leader, one of their own, to guide them.
What are the qualities of a good leader? What middot (attributes, or more literally, measurements) is God looking to see Moses demonstrate before offering him the job of standing up to Pharaoh and leading the Hebrews into the wilderness?
Though raised among royalty, distant from the suffering of his Hebrew kinfolk, Moses knew injustice when he saw it. One day he went out to observe the toil of the Hebrews, and he saw an Egyptian boss beating a laborer.
The Torah relates that Moses looks this way and that, and seeing no one else around, he strikes down the Egyptian, killing him, and hides the Egyptian’s body in the sand.
One might read this premeditation – looking this way and that, seeing no other witnesses – as the act of a murderer or, at best, a coward. Of course, he was covering his tuchus, no?
Perhaps not. Our Sages offer a couple of more charitable assessments of Moses casing the scene. First, “looking this way and that” was how Moses observed that Egypt not only oppressed them in their field of labor, but also oppressed them in the bedroom, waging a more insidious assault on the family integrity of the Hebrews. Second, by “seeing no one else” Moses prophesied that this taskmaster had no progeny in his future that would be erased by Moses if Moses attacked him.
But my favorite interpretation of this is one I learned from my teacher Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, who said that when Moses saw no one around, he understood that it was up to him alone to take action and protect this Hebrew from injustice.
Perhaps it was this great act of moral initiative – at great personal cost, since he later had to flee Egypt – that singled Moses out for a future in the redemption business.
Ever have a job interview like this?
“What was your first full-time job?”
“And why did you leave that job?”
“Had to skip town on a manslaughter rap…Um, I mean…differences with management.”
But palace experience, fluency in Egyptian, values-based shoving, and the ability to pivot strategically weren’t the only things on Moses’s leadership CV. In his most recent career, he was a shepherd, minding the flock of his father in law, Jethro. According to our Sages in the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:2), this was the bullet point that was most relevant to his future position in the redemption business.
God observed Moses at work with his wooly charges, noticed how one stray lamb had wandered off, looking for water in a cave, and had become exhausted. Rather than leave this least of sheep behind, Moses picked up the lamb and held it on his shoulders to carry it back to its family.
The Sages said it was this act of care that prompted the Holy One to take notice, make a decision, and say, “Fire up that thornbush.” As Simon Sinek has said, leadership isn’t about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those who are in your charge.
Humility – Pros and Cons
Another job-hunting lesson from Parashat Shemot has to do with the judicious employment of humility during a job interview. Moses was known for his humility as a leader, and immediately rejected God’s initial call for him to aid God in the liberation of our people. He was honest about his weaknesses (another good tactic in job interviews) and claimed that he wasn’t much of a public speaker. But God persisted, and Moses again demurred, saying that he had a stammer (according to Rashi’s interpretation). God then gave Moses two important lessons in management.
First, its praiseworth for leaders to surround themselves with people who have complementary strengths in their own areas of weakness: Moses brother Aaron would do all the talking.
Second, while a little humility can be endearing, excessive humility – to the point of questioning the judgment of those who call on you to lead – can be costly. Rashi observes further that at this moment when God becomes angry at Moses’s persistent protest (Exodus 4:14), God decides that while Moses will be kept on as the political (and later military) leader of B’nei Yisrael, Aaron would be the one to become the progenitor of the Kohanim, the line of Priests in holy service.
It’s one thing to say “I’m not worthy” as a gracious expression of humility and gratitude when called to do an important (even scary) job. But sometimes if you persist in this line of argument, people will believe you.
Be the Hero
In the end I believe that it is the strength of Moses’s sense of justice (with the taskmaster) and the depth of his capacity for mercy (with the lamb) – and being able to balance those two attributes in one character – that God found so attractive in Moses as a candidate for perhaps the most important leadership position in our history. Balancing justice and mercy, as it happens, seems to be the most important, pressing, and some might argue difficult job requirements for Moses’s Boss as well.
Our Sages ask in the Talmud, assuming God prays, what is God’s prayer? They answer: “That my capacity for mercy prevail over my capacity for strict justice.”
This may be a long walk from Shemot, but Walking Dead fans like me may have noticed this being cited in Season 8. Not only that, but they will remember King Ezekiel’s line, “When someone asks you to be the hero, be the hero.”
Moses is a complicated person. Perhaps more so than Rick Grimes. But you know what? So are you. So am I. And so is everyone you know, and certainly every worth leader who has walked the earth. Even God is complicated, with competing inclinations toward justice and mercy, just as we have competing inclinations toward selfishness and beneficence. Nevertheless, we are at our best when moments and situations and people (and slaves, and lambs) call out to us:
Be the hero. There is no one else.
And if we can spend our days between those rare calls to heroic purpose practicing, by balancing our humility with our hutzpah, we may just be worthy of the call.