Parashat Sh'mot

A Burning Within

We must find the causes that make us most passionate--and work for change.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

american jewish world serviceMany people who effect dramatic change in the world speak of having had a "calling," a powerful pull toward a particular life's work or path of action. In the Torah, God appears frequently as the emissary of Divine calling, inspiring people to rise to their destined paths of duty. Abraham and Sarah's three hungry guests, Jacob's wrestler of the night, and Elijah's "sound of small silence" are just a few examples. Today, in a world where we can't rely on theophany to inspire us to make a difference, how will we recognize a calling?

Even Before the Calling

In Parashat Sh'mot, the Divine appears to Moses as a burning bush that does not burn up. This "great sight" (Exodus 3:3), as Moses describes it, is not random. Midrash actually draws a linguistic connection between the "flame (lavah) of fire" and a heart (lev) of fire.

Something burns within Moses that will not go away--his visceral opposition to the slavery in Egypt. This is the message that emanates from the eternal flames, the awareness that arises in his heart of fire.

This is not the first time that Moses feels his deep-seated intolerance for the bondage of "his brothers" (Exodus 2:11), but thus far he has been afraid to face it. When he kills the Egyptian in defense of a Hebrew slave, he not only buries the body, he buries the personal implications of his actions by fleeing to the farthest reaches of the desert and beginning a new life in a remote community. Nonetheless, Moses cannot extinguish the fire within him, nor can he escape its heat.

His burning bush revelation ultimately empowers him to return to Egypt and take a stand. "The sages say: Seven whole days previously did God urge Moses to go on his mission, but he refused to go until the incident of the bush" (Sh'mot Rabbah 3:14). Mere nudging was insufficient. Moses needed to look upon his own heart, to see that he would always remain disturbed by the injustices in Egypt.

Pick a Cause

flame on black backgroundWhen we realize that a certain injustice in the world will always deeply disturb us, we gain the strength to address it--even without total confidence that we will succeed.

Moses certainly lacked confidence. In the presence of the burning bush, he expresses his heaviest anxieties. He feels inadequate and meek. He fears the unknown and the what-ifs of the future. Even God's words and wonders cannot dissolve Moses' doubts.

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Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute, and The Conservative Yeshiva.