This week’s Torah portion, entitled “Shemot” (Meaning “Names” as it starts out with the names of the Hebrews who were in Egypt) begins our journey into the Book of Exodus (also actually called “Shemot” in Hebrew). The reading for this week begins with the rising of a Pharaoh who “knew not of Joseph”, and began to persecute the Hebrews; continues through the birth, education, and rise to power of Moses as a servant of God and a prophet; and carries us through the first seven plagues. Even if you’ve never read these verses, the stories are still probably familiar through film and television, and through the recital of them each year at Passover Seders.
In the midst of his journey, Moses has the transcendent moment that forces him to shift from being a good man to becoming the leader of a nation. Most of us have heard of or read the verses that describe Moses, who has fled Egypt and is serving as a shepherd of Jethro, his father-in-law’s sheep and his experience on the mountain with the burning bush. There are so many beautiful and important teachings found in this moment of Moses’ life that it seems important we look at a few of them.
There are beautiful midrashim (ancient Rabbinic stories) about this event. One is that a little sheep got lost, and Moses tracked it down and in his compassion then carried it on his back so that it wouldn’t get hurt. God looked down on this event, and determined that this was the exact type of shepherd that the Hebrews needed, and then revealed himself to Moses. Another is that God spoke to Moses in the voice of Amram (Moses’ father) so that Moses would not be scared of the voice, and even identified Himself to Moses as “I am the God of your father (not “fathers”), the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. In God’s compassion and infinite understanding, He made Himself accessible to Moses so that the personal and powerful dialogue between Moses and God would be able to occur.
God’s compassion and understanding of the challenges of humanity is clear in the events that happen at the burning bush, and in a time when many feel that God is harsh, brutal, and may even be absent or lost, I think it is important for us to review this amazing compassionate understanding of God, and to remember that God is always kind, even when we don’t realize it in our daily lives.
There is a beautiful tradition that the burning bush was always “burning”, but no one had ever noticed it before. Moses, in his simple wisdom and curiosity, noticed what most people did not, and this too demonstrated the value of his selection as a leader. He noticed the subtle things around him…a practice we all need to emulate. Do we pause and count the flowers around us, let alone smell them, or do we wander by while engaged in a conversation, text, or game on our smart device? Do we notice the subtle changes that friends and family make to their hair, makeup, clothing, etc. and do we compliment them on those changes, or are we just oblivious of our loved ones changes in life? Young children often notice the little things in life, but it seems all too often that as we grow older, we lose those observational qualities and become self-absorbed. Moses is the example to us all that if we just pause and really notice life, we will become able to be more consciously aware of God’s holy presence in each moment and in every place.
Rabbeinu Bachya (1050-1120) teaches that God’s compassion is evident in the very way he approaches the dialogue with Moses. The Torah describes Moses’ vision in three different ways: a fire, an angel, and then finally as God. Like someone in a dark room whose eyes cannot tolerate an immediate exposure to blinding sunlight, Moses had to be exposed to prophecy gradually. He was first shown a fire that was strange because it did not consume the bush. Then it was revealed to him that there was an angel in the fire. Once Moses had become accustomed to these two odd phenomenon, he was then given the vision of God Himself. As parents and teachers we must always be cognizant of how we present material to children, teaching for the student’s needs and not for our own. (As an example, I am reminded of this every Purim, where the deeper teachings of the text have to do with compulsion and addictions and how we should wipe out the “Amalek within”, but we teach the simpler understanding of heroes and villains to the children until they are adults.) God in His kindness, introduces Himself to Moses a step at a time so that Moses can have a true dialogue with the Almighty.
Moses is known as the most humble man who ever lived. “Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth!” (Numbers 12:3) In his honest humility he did not want the job that God was assigning him (who would?!), and so he tried to persuade God to choose someone else. He made one legitimate excuse after another as to why God should choose someone else, yet each argument he gave to not be a leader, God answered with a solution and gave him the burden of leadership in crisis. Through firm kindness, God “coaches” Moses into accepting his yoke of destiny.
Although most of us will never experience God in such a direct and clear way as Moses at the burning bush, we all experience this type of inner dialogue, questions, and Divine guidance every moment of our lives. We must take the teachings of Moses at the bush to heart as go through challenges both great and small in our lives. It is imperative that we simultaneously act in humble ways so that we can receive Divine guidance (such as Moses’ humble act of kindness in carrying the sheep), and that also we have a “holy arrogance” so that we can act. Rebbe Nachman teaches that “the people who have this holy arrogance are the most humble people in the world. They are the really humble people. Their arrogance is not because of “I am,” it is because “This is right”. A more modern author penned “Who should act? He who can!”. We must have the humility to receive and the holy arrogance to act. And that arrogance must always be done in kindness and compassion. We should always act so that we are champions of doing what is right.
There is so much in this week’s Torah reading, and these teachings on the burning bush are only a small part of the wisdom packed into the portion, but they are extremely important in understanding the deeper values of our faith tradition. The values of compassion, kindness, holy humility and holy arrogance, and the deep challenge for every Jew to always do what is right and righteous are found beautifully in this reading…and must be expressed in every moment of our lives.
Moses was guided by God to not just feel or think, but to act; and this is a primary value for Jews. It has been taught the single biggest difference between Catholicism and Judaism (besides the Jesus as Messiah philosophy) is that while both traditions desire practitioners to both believe in God and act righteously. Catholicism prefers if you can do only one, you should believe in God, as God can forgive any action. Judaism on the other hand believes that if we can only do one, we should act righteously, and in so doing will grow into a deeper belief of God. Our is a tradition of action, but always of actions that are compassionate and kind even if they are difficult.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l once said, “When I was younger, I used to admire people who are clever. Now that I’m older, I admire those who are kind”. We often forget this value of kindness and compassion, and this story of the burning bush and Moses is a beautiful reminder of God’s kindness, and our need to be the same. In every moment and in every way.
Or to quote a very different non-Orthodox popular teacher known as Dr. Who, “Never be cruel, never be cowardly. Remember hate is always foolish and love is always wise. Always try to be nice but never fail to be kind. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”
May we all take to heart the teachings of the Torah, and may we be truly kind to ourselves and others; constantly compassionate and filled with both holy humility and holy arrogance; and always act in ways that are right and righteous…especially in the face of challenges that seem bigger than ourselves.
Rabbi Michael Barclay January 8, 2021 24th of Tevet, 5781