The scene is a familiar one: after a long day at work, a couple decides to have their dinner delivered rather than prepare it themselves. They place their order, and within an hour they’re enjoying their meal in the comfort of their home. But their delivery guy was… unexpected: a long-haired, sandal-wearing mensch who looks like he hasn’t shaved in 40 years.
His vehicle of choice: a large camel. His area of operations: the land of Canaan. The name listed on the delivery receipt: Mo, although his brothers and sisters call him “Moses.” Yes, folks, in this scenario, the once-famed prince of Egypt now works as a driver for Nosh, the most popular food delivery service in the ancient world.
Now, before you accuse me of profaning the image of one of our most sacred patriarchs, let me explain why I find this imagined Moses so intriguing. Recently, I’ve been suffering from an affliction that millions of us are experiencing. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, I’m talking about something less fatal but almost as mysterious: a lack of direction in life.
To make a long story short, for the first time in my life, I truly don’t know where I’m headed, specifically in terms of my career. Ostensibly, this shouldn’t be that big a deal: I have my health, a job, a beautiful and loving girlfriend, and a support system that keeps me afloat. Not only that, I have the freedom to pursue whatever professional or higher educational path I wish to embark on. Why then, do I feel so anxious about the future?
When I reflect on my current predicament, a fellow Jew comes to mind: Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his 1958 lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin divided liberty into two separate categories— negative and positive. In his formulation, negative liberty is the freedom from something, while positive liberty is the freedom to do something. In this country, we possess negative liberty because we are protected from things like unlawful searches and seizures (although not all groups experience this protection equally, particularly people of color); we maintain positive liberty through our ability to vote or to buy a house (although the barriers to pursue these aims are greater for many in our country, especially people of color).
Viewing my own life through Berlin’s paradigm, I am grateful for my negative liberties, which are abundant. My negative liberties keep me from being forced into a dangerous job, for example—a fate commonplace for those who fall under the specters of poverty and totalitarianism. Yet, for all my negative liberty, the positive liberty I possess seems to be a source of consternation rather than liberation.
At this point, you’re probably asking: “What’s this got to do with Moses?”
When Moses met God for the first time in the form of a burning bush at Mount Horeb, he was ordered to liberate his people from bondage and take them to the promised land. Although Moses initially protested God by saying he did not want the job, in the end, he acceded, and assumed the role of prophet. Indeed, it’s well within reason to suspect that had God chosen someone else, Moses would’ve lived a happy life as a shepherd – one with a tainted past, but with enough goats to keep him busy and Midianites to keep him company.
While it’s not clear whether or not Moses even had a choice in the matter, let’s suppose that he did. If he had had the positive liberty to pursue the career path he wanted, would he have still found a way to serve God? Or would he have become a baker, a basket weaver, or perhaps a food deliveryman?
While part of me wishes that the Most High would descend from the heavens, sift through my numerous passions, and assign me a job that’s in line with at least one of them, part of me also sees the downside of such a deterministic method of job procurement. Although Moses succeeded in delivering the Israelites from Egypt, his career was riddled with failures, most notably when he disobeyed God by striking a rock to deliver the Israelites water as a means of assuaging their suffering in the wilderness. As punishment, God denied Moses from entering the promised land, an experience that would have allowed him to enjoy the fruit of his labors. Additionally, because the Torah doesn’t make this clear, it’s worth asking, did Moses even enjoy his job? Was he passionate about the prophet lifestyle? Or was he secretly yearning to do something else, something more in line with his interests and aspirations?
Although Moses and the other prophets held important jobs and commanded the respect of their followers, they did not escape the vicissitudes of human existence. Yes, their path was laid out for them, but those paths were still marred by frustrations and failures. I don’t know what my path is; all I know is that one day, I will appreciate the positive liberty I possess to choose it, and see it less as a burden and more as an opportunity. Perhaps if Moses was afforded a similar choice, you’d know him as your friendly-neighborhood delivery guy, not as the larger-than-life prophet we remember every Pesach.
In the words of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “Our careers consume much of our strength and our time and our creativity, but they must never consume us.” May we hold that truth close to our hearts as we navigate the winding road of life.