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Frederick L. Klein
Frederick L. Klein

Shemot: The Power of Sight and Insight

People are amazed when they see things which are outside the realm of nature, revealed miracles.

And they do not understand that nature itself is one huge miracle.
That one can always see the greatness of the Creator and get excited over it.
But when one sees a revealed miracle, they begin to believe
That in every day simple and natural life, – every day
There exists Divine providence, and miraculous things happen.
But we are accustomed to them, and we don’t pay attention to them.

-Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk

How does one arrive at a vision of the Divine?  The first time that Moses appears at the “mountain of God”, Mount Sinai, God appears to Moses in the most mundane of ways, a burning bush. Nothing could be more unremarkable than burning tumbleweed in the desert that spontaneously catches fire. Somehow however, Moses is struck to the core. Only two years later, Moses will return to this same place with the entire Jewish people, and it will be there that the entire people will hear the voice of God, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt”, emanating from that same mountain. There again, there will be fire, but this time it will not be a mere bush but the entire mountain ablaze. Just as when Moses turns away from God in awe when approaching the bush, the entire people of Israel will step back from the mountain in terror. The miracle at Mount Sinai was so extraordinary that the rabbis tell us that the ‘lowly maidservant’ saw more at Mount Sinai than the prophet Ezekiel. The connection between the vision of the bush and Mount Sinai is underscored by the Hebrew; sneh and unusual term for bush, is the same word as Sinai.

Why would God’s introduction to Moses be in the form of a lowly burning bush, and not some grand vision? This is Moses’ first vision! Furthermore, what is the message of God appearing in the form of a burning bush? Finally, what is the nature of Moses that he feels compelled to go towards a bush on fire. We must remember that he only hears the voice of God after he approaches.

The key to all these questions lay in the Hebrew root, lir’ot, to see. The root also means to understand, to conceive, to have a vision, to notice, to experience, to consider. One way the Torah conveys meaning is through the repetition of words, called a Leitwort (Hebrew milah mancha). A variation of the word lir’ot occurs throughout this week’s parashah. To bring a few examples: the daughter of Pharaoh sees the basket on the Nile and then sees the child (2:5-6). Moses goes out to his brethren and sees their suffering and sees an Egyptian striking an Israelite (2:11). God takes notice of the Jewish people (2:25). God sees the oppression of the Israelites (3:9). In all these cases, the seeing is not just a mechanical act of the eyes, but an opening of the heart to really understand what is happening and implied in this seeing is a demand to respond. The seeing in our parashah is very much connected to the realization of the injustice of the slavery and the suffering of the people. From the perspective of the daughter of Pharoah, she opens her eyes to see the suffering imposed by her own father, and acts upon it. For Moses, who is raised in the house of Pharaoh, he lifts his eyes up to understand that these slaves are his brethren and is moved to take radical measures to stand up for them by striking down a cruel taskmaster. Even God is awakened; God sees the suffering, sees the cruelty of Pharaoh, and it is this realization that motivates the initial call to Moses.

An angel of the God appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. And the Lord continued, “I have very much seen the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt (3:2-10).

Within the course of eight verses a form of the root lir’ot appears seven times. God appears in the form of a fiery bush, Moses decides for some reason he must gaze upon the bush, and God reveals for some reason to Moses that he knows about what is going on in Egypt, and that he should return to free them.

It is important to consider when this vision occurs. Moses grew up in the house of Pharaoh but had been exiled as a young man, following his striking the Egyptian. The vision of the burning bush occurred at the age of 79. Thus, Moses’ entire career, leading the Jewish people for forty years occurred during the last forty years of his life! For well over half a century, Moses had ‘retired’ from political activism, becoming a shepherd in the wilderness. We have no information at all about those years. However, given the fact that Moses is suddenly tasked with the freeing of the Israelites after more than half a century, there must have been something about Moses that made him the right person. Perhaps it was the fact that it was Moses who directed his attention to the bush in the first place. Maybe that bush was burning for years but no one took the interest to look. But why did he?

Rabbi David Fohrman has noted that what is unique about the miracle of the burning bush is mainly that it is not a miracle that is readily seen. If one walked by a burning bush, one would not necessarily think anything miraculous was going on. It would take the gift of sight, or more accurately insight, to really understand what one is seeing. A person would need to sit down and take the time to consider the anomaly, because the miracle is revealed only after a durée. In essence, God is present in that bush, but hidden to those without the gift to see and consider.

In our story, Moses is compelled to look at this bush. The question is however, is God seeking him out, or is Moses seeking a message, and that message crystallizes through this anomalous burning bush? In all those years in exile, Moses continued to question his own role, his failure at making any real change in his early radicalism, and the confounding silence of the God of Israel. The midrash shares a fascinating explanation of the vision, which contextualizes this event.

What is [the meaning of] “I am with him in sorrow”? (Psalms 91:15) … The Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses, “You do not sense that I too dwell in sorrow just as Israel dwells in sorrow. But you should know from the place I speak to you from within the thornbush, [that is a sign] as it were that I too am a partner in their sorrow.”

In other words, God is like the burning bush, because just as the Jewish people suffer, God suffers. God has not abandoned them, God is concerned, and therefore God now approaches Moses.

Another explanation, of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619, known as Keli Yakar), says the above explanation does not explain why the bush is not consumed, and therefore sees the bush representing the resilience of the Jewish people, as they are consumed by oppression and the lack of a Divine response. Yet they remain faithful. Still yet another explanation he brings is that the bush represents the Egyptian people, as they are like thorns for the Jewish people, and even with the impending plagues, Pharaoh will refuse to let them go. Thus, the bush foreshadows the difficult journey ahead

One explanation focuses on the silence of God, the next on the faithfulness of the Jewish people to their God despite God’s silence, and the last focuses on the persistence of injustice and evil. Whatever the objective truth is about the message contained within the vision, what is important to understand is that if you or I saw this vision we may very well have interpreted it differently, based upon our own considerations and concerns. Moses at first thought he was just looking at burning tumbleweed, but in the course of time he began to really consider and reflect, and the image pierced him to his core. All the concerns that haunted him for decades began to crystallize as he gazed into this strange phenomenon. Only by approaching the bush, does he finally realize he is having a prophetic experience, and only then hears the voice of God. The rest of the chapter can not only be read as a dialogue between God and Moses, but an internal struggle within Moses as God’s call to him to liberate the Jewish people becomes crystal clear in his own consciousness.

Moses was called by God, but Moses was the one who spent his early life asking why there is such suffering, why there is such evil, and why doesn’t God respond. Overtime, Moses began to have thoughts that he could no longer be silent, he could no longer hide in the wilderness, and it was precisely at this point that God called out in a form that directly spoke to him, demanding from him a response. While Moses eventually speaks to God ‘face to face’, this is the product of a lifetime of seeking the face and the ways of God in everything around him. Moses turned to this bush, because the bush spoke to his most fundamental concerns, and it was in this seeking that he begins to see anew and understand the responsibility he has.

In our lives, we often find it hard to hear the voice of God. For two thirds of his life, Moses also never heard the voice of God… until he did. It began with the gesture of asura na, I shall turn towards this strange phenomenon. We can indeed hear the voice of God, and understand better our mission in this world, if we too take time to consider the miracles all around us, the messages contained within them, and what is expected of us.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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