Moses and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
January 15, 2021
By Miriam Abramovich

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha God brings Moses what those of us who study leadership call a stretch-assignment, and this was a big one: Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” (Ex. 6:10-11). When handed his epic assignment, a task seemingly Herculean, Moses pushes back, explaining to God that he is surely not the right person for the job: “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, me — who gets tongue-tied!” (Ex. 6:12)

A humble man, Moses had been dwelling in the wilderness of Midian for many years. He was tending to the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro and helping to raise his young family, unaware of the future leadership role he was destined to fill. In this interaction with God, Moses comes face to face with a feeling often referred to as “Imposter Syndrome,” the sense of being inadequate or ill-prepared to do a job and the accompanying fear of being exposed as an imposter.

Many scholars have written about the reasons behind Moses’ initial hesitation. Perhaps it was a speech impediment, the fear of facing Pharaoh, or because he thought his older brother Aaron was more qualified. Regardless of the reason, Moses just didn’t think he was up for the job. But God saw from the beginning what Moses had the potential to become, something greater that he himself ever could have imagined.

Stretch assignments and calls to greatness often show up in moments when we feel the least prepared. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l shares this:I want to quote you a line from Shakespeare that I found life-changing. It comes from Twelfth Night and it goes to the very heart of what it is to be a Jew. He says, ‘Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. But some have greatness thrust upon them.’ I realized at a pretty early age I wasn’t born great and I wasn’t going to achieve greatness, but at a certain point in my life at university I suddenly realized that if you’re a Jew you have greatness thrust upon you.”

Moses’ greatness was indeed thrust upon him, but the process began long before God handed him this stretch assignment. We had already seen Moses stand-up to injustice on several occasions: stopping an Egyptian task master, mediating between two Jews fighting, and helping Jethro’s daughter. What many of us don’t grasp in our first encounter with a stretch assignment, are the many steps that brought us to that moment.

Dr. Caroline Leaf, cognitive neuroscientist and communication pathologist, writes We all have two voices in our head: a voice that is afraid and tends talks us out of things, and a voice who wants us to go forward and pursue our dreams—too often, the fearful voice wins. However, when we care enough to trust ourselves to go forward, even when it doesn’t work out as planned, we can start tapping into our creativity and pursuing our dreams with courage and determination.”

When we are given a call to greatness, we don’t need to let that inner fearful voice win. The stretch is: finding the courage to leap past Imposter Syndrome, knowing that we don’t have to face these moments alone, and then learning on the job. God said to Moses, “see, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land.” (Ex. 7:1-7:2)

What unfolds in the rest of the Parsha are the first of Moses’ requests for Pharaoh to release the Israelites and the subsequent plagues so familiar to us from the Passover story. At each turn towards greatness Moses’ attempts are thwarted by Pharaoh’s hardened or stiffened heart — but he continues on, learning as he goes, with Aaron and God by his side.

Moses faced down his inner critic, he pushed through with the support of others, to discover, (like we all can when called to greatness) that we are each uniquely qualified and suited for the task at hand. If we weren’t capable, we would not have been handed that big stretch-assignment in the first place by someone who saw the greatness that exists in each of us.

Miriam Abramovich is the Chief Experience Officer at the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

Moses and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome - Jewish thought of the week graphic