Moshe’s curious mind
Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
A new Pharaoh has risen. The people Israel are enslaved and oppressed, and their very lives are in danger. Into this frightening reality, a baby is born who then becomes the leader destined to overturn the status quo and free his people. That is the stunning narrative of Parashat Shemot. Among the many questions one could ask about this parashah is this: what qualities made Moshe fit to be a leader at this crucial time? Was it his sensitivity to the pain of the Israelites? Intimate knowledge of the Egyptian royal family gleaned from having been raised by Pharaoh’s daughter? The skills he would have gained as a shepherd?
One possible answer can be found in chapter three, in the incident of the burning bush. Moshe has been living for some time in Midian, having fled Egypt after impulsively killing an Egyptian. He has been living a simple life as a husband, father, and shepherd when he is called upon by a divine messenger to return to Egypt and free his people from bondage.
Interestingly, Moshe would never have heard this divine charge at all were it not for his decision to stop and examine the burning bush: “Moshe said to himself: ‘I will turn and look at this great sight.'” (Exodus 3:3)
In his book God Was In This Place and I, I Did Not Know, Lawrence Kushner points out that in order for Moshe to perceive that the bush was not being consumed, he had to stop and observe it for a while. Burning is a slow process. The burning bush could not be understood instantaneously as miraculous; rather, it would take a few minutes to notice that the bush was not in fact being destroyed by the flames.
One of the personal qualities Moshe displays in this incident is curiosity. He takes the time to stop and pay attention to something fairly ordinary in the wilderness – a bush on fire. In following his curiosity, he is able to perceive a miracle.
Let’s consider the value of curiosity.
Curiosity is an important ingredient in learning. Children are naturally curious about the world around them. The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, for example, espouses the value of nurturing curiosity and wonder in children. In the words of Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy: “The wonder of learning, of knowing, of understanding is one of the first, fundamental sensations each human being expects from experiences faced alone or with others.”
Engaging in curiosity is part of the work of childhood, in the words of Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsalz: “All other primates abandon curiosity relatively early, in order to deal with the problems of daily living – finding food, rearing offspring – but the prolonged childhood of humans gives them the opportunity to spend more time cultivating their curiosity.”
Of course, curiosity is not just the purview of children. It is also a key character trait for many professions, such as journalism and science. “I have no special talents,” said Albert Einstein. “I am only passionately curious.” In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Warren Berger reports that a significant number of CEOs surveyed named “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as crucial qualities in a leader. He quotes McCormick & Company CEO Alan D. Wilson as saying that leaders who are naturally curious are the most successful. Curiosity impels us to question and to investigate, thereby opening the door to new insights.
The former Pharaoh whom we met in the book of Bereshit was curious. He noticed the strangeness of his dreams and was curious about what they might have meant. He listened to the interpretations of the dreams by Yosef, then a prison inmate with no social standing. His curiosity paved the way for his openness to Yosef’s novel suggestion of appointing an overseer who would plan for the predicted famine. Curiosity led to an innovative solution to an impending crisis.
In contrast to the Pharaoh who knew Yosef, the “new Pharaoh” whom we meet in this parashah operates from a place of fear, not curiosity. His fear of the Israelites’ growing numbers leads to the enactment of ever crueler edicts. Autocrats are usually not curious. Autocrats tend to avoid the modes of wondering and pondering. They prefer not to learn through open inquiry and investigation, but simply to confirm their preconceived notions. Curiosity threatens the status quo. That is why some of the first people who are executed in totalitarian states are those who revel in curiosity: journalists, intellectuals, artists.
In order to achieve his mission, to break through Pharaoh’s stubbornness and Israel’s despondency, Moshe would have to be open-minded, innovative, and flexible in his thinking. The curiosity he displayed in the encounter with the burning bush was an indication that Moshe was up to the complex task of liberating the people Israel.
May our leaders today be inspired by Moshe’s example and engage in the world with curiosity.
Rabbi Amy Bardack is director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.