Shlomo M. Hamburger

Parshat Shemot — Communicating Through Prayer

For forty years, Moshe worked for his father-in-law Yitro as a shepherd, carefully tending to his flocks. He was diligent and dedicated. During that period, Moshe probably learned the location of all the watering places and knew where the sheep could graze undisturbed by others and without encroaching on others’ lands. His life was fairly predictable – except for an occasional wild animal or other danger, he woke up every morning and did his job as best he could.

Then, the day came when he encountered the burning bush.  It was a day that changed his life, the life of the Jewish people, and the entire world. Yet it began pretty much like every other day for the past forty years. He woke up and went to work, taking the sheep into the wilderness looking for water and grazing land. Then it happened. He saw a bush that was burning with fire but was not being consumed. Moshe turned and said (to himself) “Asura na v’ere et hamare hagadol ha’ze.  Let me turn now and see this great sight; why the bush is not being burned.” At that point, G-d spoke out and Moshe had his mission.

Most of us don’t experience prophecy in quite the same way. Instead, we connect with spirituality and G-d through prayer. Nevertheless, as Rav Soloveitchik wrote, “the difference between prayer and prophecy … is related not to the substance of the dialogue, but rather to the order in which it is conducted.”  In prophecy, G-d talks and man listens; in prayer, man talks and G-d listens. Yet, the dialogue is the same. With that perspective in mind, consider what Moshe’s encounter at the burning bush teaches about connecting to G-d through prayer.

It starts with concentration. Think about a gas fireplace with fake logs. You must concentrate on what you see to understand that although there is fire, nothing is being consumed. When did G-d talk to Moshe?  Only after Moshe turned to look at the great sight. He stood in one place and focused on what was happening.  Moshe could have walked away, figuring it was just some wildfire that would burn itself out. Instead, his concentration evoked a connection.

Next, take your time in prayer.  It took Moshe forty years of shepherding before G-d determined he was ready for his mission. It didn’t happen overnight. This is hard in an era of instant communication. But you cannot run into a synagogue, send G-d a spiritual tweet, and expect an immediate response. You need to take your time and prepare yourself properly before, during, and after prayer.

Prayer also requires that you become communicable to G-d. In Parshat Shmot, G‑d talked to Moshe before Moshe talked to G-d. G-d saw in Moshe someone with whom G-d wanted to have a conversation.

Last, prayer requires that you acknowledge that you are part of something greater. You find your own place but in the context of your past and what brought you to this point. G‑d told Moshe two things at first: (1) to take his shoes off; and (2) that he was communicating with the G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob.  In other words, G-d told Moshe that he was part of a long tradition and covenantal relationship, but he could still stand on his own two feet.

So, too, we can connect to our past and learn to stand on our own. We just need to look back to a day, some 2,500 years before the common era, when a shepherd woke up and went to work just like he had for the past forty years. Then he saw a burning bush. He could have walked away. Instead, he was prepared. He took three steps forward and changed the world. We each encounter our own tests, our own “burning bush.” We don’t know when or where, but it will happen. When that day comes, will we walk away from it? Or will we be able to draw upon our strength to “turn and look at this great sight”?

About the Author
Shlomo (Paul) M. Hamburger is a retired lawyer. He is the author of numerous books and articles and a frequent speaker and teacher. Shlomo is on the International Advisory Board for Chabad on Campus International. He is also the author of "The Anochi Project: Seeking God's Identity" and "Unlocking the Code: The Letters of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, Translations with Practical Lessons".