Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
This Shabbat we read Shemot — the beginning of the Book of Exodus. The scene is set with a new Pharaoh and a change in attitude toward the Hebrews descended from Jacob and his children, who settled in Goshen since they arrived in Egypt during the time of Joseph. We learn of the enslavement of the Hebrews, and a policy of attempting to destroy all new-born baby boys. Moses is saved by being hidden in a basket and placed in the Nile, where he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister, Miriam, who was watching what would happen to him, offers to fetch a woman to nurse the baby and fetches their very own mother. Moses grows up in the palace, but sometime later his life changes when, having seen a slave-master beating a Hebrew, he strikes the slave-master dead. When Pharaoh hears of what he has done, Moses leaves Egypt to escape Pharaoh’s wrath and ends up in Midian, where he marries and has a son.
In Midian, Moses is tending sheep. One day, as he approaches Mount Horeb with his flock, an angel of God appears in the form of a bush that appears to be burning yet is not consumed. When Moses directs his attention to investigate the bush further, God speaks to him. Having seen the suffering of the Hebrews, God will redeem them from slavery, and bring them out of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey.
There is more to the story… Moses’ reluctance to take on the role of messenger to Pharaoh and to the Hebrews – the back and forth between Moses and God is an extended one, but God won’t take no for an answer.
This is one of my favorite moments in the Torah. It resonates deeply for me as a powerful and symbolic text that epitomizes how the Torah creates image and narrative to explain an inner human landscape and the unfolding of our lives at moments that are almost impossible to put into words. Step into the life of Moses for a moment. He fled from Egypt with his life. He has settled down in Midian. He has a simple, uncomplicated life with a wife, a child, and an extended family that has welcomed him. What would possess him to go back and, furthermore, take on such an overwhelming task? As much as the narrative may present Moses as arguing with God to try and back out of his mission, this could easily be an inner back-and-forth narrative.
Have you experienced something life-changing? You thought life was heading in one direction – perhaps you were living a simple and straightforward story – and something compelled you to look at your life and to turn onto a radically different path. And, as much as you may have felt compelled – like it wasn’t really a choice at all – there may have been an inner narrative that played out as your self-doubts and anxieties came to the surface, and you tried to weigh the pros and cons of this change in direction. Perhaps there was a specific event or a specific interaction or conversation that awoke you to the need to change direction, like the burning bush that is the ‘angel’ (literally ‘messenger of God’) that causes Moses to pay a different kind of attention.
These are moments that are difficult to put into words. When we tell the stories of our lives, we may be able to describe the steps that brought us from one reality to a new one, but language cannot contain or adequately convey the emotional or inner landscape that is the driver for those steps and a new reality. The genius of the Torah is that it presents us with an unforgettable, vivid image that conjures up exactly what those life-changing experiences can feel like.
So… what is your burning bush moment?