How was Moses chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and become the leader known to history?

Prior to his return to Egypt, G‑d met Moses in a burning bush and requested that he become His messenger. Initially Moses hesitated due to his poor communication skills, but G‑d wouldn’t take no for an answer. In a series of conversations recorded in Exodus 3–4, G‑d convinces Moses to be His emissary, demand that Pharaoh free the Children of Israel from slavery, and lead them to Mount Sinai. Midrashic literature sheds light on this fascinating episode.

The Final Test

Moses was pasturing the flocks of Jethro, his father-in-law, the chief of Midian. He led the flocks after the free pastureland, and he came to the mountain of G‑d, to Horeb.1

It was the year 2447 from Creation, and it could be said that Moses had reached the slow movement in the symphony of his life. He had fled Egypt to escape Pharaoh's death sentence,2 finding refuge in Midian, where he met his wife, Zipporah.3 After tending the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, for 40 years, it seemed that he had largely forgotten his brothers’ plight.4

By then the Jews had been slaves for 115 years5 and Pharaoh’s decrees had reached a breaking point. In line with documented ancient Egyptian practice, he ordered that Israelite babies be slaughtered so he could bathe in their blood to relieve his leprosy.6

“G‑d does not give anyone a large task before testing their ability with a small one.”7 And so, finally ready to liberate His people, G‑d tested Moses one last time.

King David and Moses were both shepherds before they became great leaders. G‑d watched the way they treated their flocks to determine if they were worthy to guide His people.8

When Moses grazed his flock, he deliberately led them beyond the grasslands. In the desert, where only the nomads dwelled, he knew that his sheep and goats would not eat crops that belonged to other people.9 Once, he noticed a lamb straying from the herd. He followed her until they arrived at a pool, where she drank thirstily. Moses bent down, gently gathered the little lamb in his arms and placed her on his shoulders. “I didn’t know you strayed because you were thirsty. You must be tired,” he said, and carried her back to the flock.

G‑d knew then that Moses was the man for the job. “Because you, Moses, are merciful enough to guide a mortal’s sheep, I promise you will eventually shepherd My flock, the Israelites.”10

The Burning Bush

G‑d wished to reveal Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai in order to inform him of the place He planned to give the Torah, but the distance between Midian and the Sinai Desert is vast. According to one tradition, Moses walked for days in search of grassy pasture, and eventually arrived at Mount Sinai.11 Another tradition says that Moses suddenly and miraculously found himself at the foot of the mountain.12

G‑d called to Moses from atop the mountain, but the dedicated shepherd was too occupied to notice.13 To grab his attention, G‑d orchestrated a strange sight: a thornbush on top of Mount Sinai caught fire, but the branches did not burn. It worked; Moses was intrigued. “I’m going to stop what I’m doing now and get a closer look at this spectacle! Why isn’t the bush catching fire?”14

Many explanations are given to explain why G‑d chose a fiery thornbush to catch Moses’ attention. For one, Moses was worried that the Egyptians would destroy the Jewish nation entirely. G‑d showed him the bush to demonstrate that although the Jews would suffer at Egypt’s hands, they would not be annihilated.15 Another tradition explains that G‑d chose a lowly thornbush to symbolize that He was together with Israel in their pain.16

When G‑d saw that Moses had noticed the bush, He called to him from atop the mountain. Moses climbed up and announced, “I am at Your service.”

G‑d instructed Moses to remove his shoes, which could not be worn where the Divine Presence rested (just like the priests in the Temple, who had to serve barefoot).17

First, G‑d introduced Himself: “I am the G‑d of your father, and the G‑d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Moses hid his face, afraid to look at G‑d. Some Talmudic sages18 see this in a negative light: by rebuffing the opportunity to see G‑d’s glory, he lost the chance to see it again. When he later wanted to look upon G‑d’s face19 after he received the Torah, G‑d refused. “You cannot see My face, for no one has seen My face and lived.”20 G‑d said to Moses: When I wanted to show you My glory, you did not want to see it; now that you want to, I do not want to show it to you.

Other sages21 see Moses’ hesitation as praiseworthy. Because he hid his face, he was privileged to have his countenance glow when he came down from Mount Sinai.22

The Command

During the “Covenant Between the Parts,” G‑d told Abraham that his children would be strangers in a foreign land for 400 years.23 That count began with the birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born, and Jacob came to Egypt when he was 130.24 G‑d waited until the remaining 210 years were up before rescuing the people of Israel.25

Until that time the Israelites had been complaining about the difficult slave conditions, but did not directly ask G‑d to intervene. Upon realizing that only G‑d could help, they finally called out to Him in prayer.

“I have seen their pain,” G‑d tells Moses, “and continue to see it. However, My people had forgotten that I promised Jacob I would save them.26 Only now has the cry of the children of Israel come before Me.27 Therefore, the time has now come for Me to free the Israelites from slavery. Go to Pharaoh and free My nation!”

Moses hesitates. He is still a fugitive, having just barely escaped the death penalty.28 Besides, who was he to speak with civilization’s greatest ruler? And the nation of Israel, were they even worthy of redemption?29

Moses reminds G‑d that he promised Jacob, “And I Myself will also bring you back.”

“You, G‑d, should be the one to redeem the Israelites! Who am I to be their savior?”30

G‑d promises Moses that He will be with him as he takes the perilous journey into Pharaoh’s palace. “And the children of Israel are worthy,” G‑d assures him. “When they leave Egypt, they will receive the Torah here, on Mount Sinai, and become My nation.”

Moses Continues to Refuse

Despite these assurances, Moses continues to hesitate. First he asks G‑d what to tell the Jews when he meets them. Then, he claims, “The Jews won’t believe that You sent me!” Even after G‑d gives Moses miracles to perform to convince the Israelites of his authenticity, Moses calls G‑d’s attention to his speech impediment. “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday!”

G‑d chastises Moses, reminding him that it was He, G‑d, who gave the power of speech to people, but Moses continues to demur: “I beseech You, O L‑rd, send now Your message with whom You would usually send!” 31

The Midrash32 relates that Moses continually refused G‑d’s mission for seven days. During that time, he provided five excuses for his repudiations:

  1. “Who am I?”33
  2. “When they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”34
  3. “They will say, ‘The L‑rd has not appeared to you’”35
  4. “But I am not a man of words.”36
  5. “Send now Your message with whom You would usually send!”37

Finally G‑d becomes angry with Moses. While the first four complaints can be seen as legitimate inquiries on Moses’ part, the final “just send someone else!” could only be interpreted as Moses shirking his destiny. Rashi explains that his initial hesitance was out of respect for his older brother, Aaron. When G‑d promised that Aaron wouldn’t be upset, Moses agreed to become His messenger and the leader known to history.

The Burning Bush as a Life Model

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe,38 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, compares the thornbush to an individual who desires to serve G‑d but lacks the ability to express his or her devotion. As opposed to a great scholar who can quench his or her love through Torah study and prayer, the simpleton does not have that luxury. He or she is therefore characterized as having a fire, a love, that does not go out—i.e., it cannot be satisfied through prayer. He or she remains constantly thirsty.

This, says the Previous Rebbe, is a great virtue. Moses, a righteous man, certainly had the ability to satisfy his love for G‑d. Nevertheless, he says, “I will go from here and go closer to the bush, to that form of constant desire,” indicating his wish to be elevated to the status of the simpleton.

The burning bush teaches us not to be let down by our current state of not-knowing. There is more beauty in the journey of the newly initiated than in the perfection of the righteous.

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim39 (Rabbi Ephraim of Sudlikov, d. 1800), on the other hand, sees the burning bush as an example of the phenomenon of ineffectual prayer. We all have “thorns”–features of our character that we would prefer to be rid of. Through passionate prayer and Divine service, we hope that those “thorns” burn away. Sometimes, just as “the thornbush was burning with fire, but the thornbush was not being consumed,” no matter how much we try (through self-help books, visits to our psychologists and heartfelt prayer), we just can’t seem to remove those character flaws.

Not to fear, says Rabbi Ephraim. Moses was told to remove his shoes in the presence of the bush, “for you stand on holy ground.” Even our flaws are part of the grand scheme of creation, and G‑d loves us despite them.