The Burning Bush in 2020

It is fascinating to me, sometimes, how our parshiot line up with the Gregorian calendar.  For example, the first week in 2020, just a couple weeks after New Years Day, we begin the first parsha of the book of Exodus.

In other words, our year begins with the words “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  A plot twist, a change in direction of our meta-narrative happens the week we begin the continuation of our personal meta-narratives, our lives, with a brand new year.  The Torah, somehow after thousands of years, still lines up with our lives and has stories to tell, lessons to be learned.  And, I’ll be honest, the parsha this week, Sh’mot, is a long one.  It’s six chapters long, and it goes all the way from Moses’ birth ato those famous words, “let my people go.”  And I thought to myself: what are some lessons that this parsha can teach us as we enter into a new year, having experienced what I consider to be a very rough year in our country?  What are some lessons that are universal for everyone to hear so they can move forward into 2020 with confidence and thoughtfulness?

Having read through this parsha through the eyes of 2020, I found two lessons that we can all take with us this week, and they both occur when Moses faces the burning bush.  Let’s set the stage: Moses is just a shepherd, a runaway, and he finds himself on Mt. Horeb, and the text says, “An angel of Adonai 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, out-loud apparently to no one in particular, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

So there Moses is, staring at a bush that is on fire.  Now at this point he has not heard the voice of God, which comes soon after, and he does not know that this bush is anything but a bush on fire.  We, as the reader, get to know that it was an angel of Adonai or God’s presence, and we look upon our hero, Moses, staring at this burning bush as he realizes that the bush is not consumed by the fire.  Usually if something is on fire, it shrivels, it disappears, it turns to ash, it turns black, but this bush did not.  The fire inside the bush was unlike normal fire.  My teachers always taught me that we should take note of this, because we should remember that if you’re staring at something on fire, it actually takes a little bit for you to realize that it is not being consumed.  It doesn’t take forever, but you’d know if you paid attention to it for more than a minute.  Now I don’t know what it was like back then, but staring at something that is unchanging for a full minute is a very difficult thing to do these days.  Let’s remove for the fact that if this occurred in 2020, that video would be uploaded to Facebook and Instagram before Moses even knew what was happening.  But more importantly, Moses was paying attention.  He needed to pay attention to make the decision to turn aside at the marvelous sight, and not simply move on.

Now it’s our job to pay attention to this moment.  If we read it face value in the English, we’d know everything the translator lets us know.  Moses finds a burning bush, he stares at it, and then eventually God’s voice comes out of it.  But, if we pay attention, if we stare at this passage for a little longer, we might come across in the Hebrew the word for bush: Seneh.  The word Seneh occurs only twice in the Torah, here, and in Deuteronomy, where God is actually called “the Presence in the Bush.”  If we look closer, we see that the word for bush, seneh, looks very similar to another word, Sinai.  And we might be able to see what Moses can’t see, that this moment is a foreshadowing for the fire that will come from the mountain of God when we receive the Torah.  We wouldn’t know that if we didn’t pay attention.  If we didn’t stare at the passage just a little bit longer, we would’ve missed it.

So, there’s one lesson for 2020.  In the land of “fake news,” click-bait and misleading headlines, let’s pay attention, let’s stare a little longer, let’s read a little closer, and let’s see if we can see whether or not our own metaphorical bushes are being consumed or not before passing them by.

Next, we see God shouting out to Moses and introducing God’s self: “I am,” God said, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  God then lays out the plan for Moses. God has heard the cry of the Israelites, and God will rescue them, and bring them out into a land of milk and honey, and tells Moses, that he is to be the messenger and the leader.  Imagine that for a moment, if you can.  Let’s try to make it easier: picture the most important person in the world (and you may argue who that is) coming to you, seemingly randomly, introducing him or herself, and then telling you that you’re going to work with them on something truly amazing and incredibly important.  How would you react?

Moses reacts in a way that’s relatively understandable.  He asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” In other words, he asks what we might have, such as “have you looked at my resume?  There’s got to be more qualified people out there to take this position.”  And God responds to this uncertainty by saying, “I will be with you.”  Let’s go back to your vision of the most important person in the world telling you you’re in charge of a big project, and when you express doubt they say, “don’t worry, I’m going to be with you from start to finish.”

I don’t know about you, but at that point, that would be enough.  It’s possible that knowing that I wouldn’t be alone on this quest would be enough for me to say yes.  But as we read on, Moses still isn’t sold.  He asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”  In other words, he says, “Ok, that’s all fine and good but they’re going to ask your name, they’re going to ask for proof.”  So God introduces God’s self again.  This time giving Moses the name EhyehAsherEhyeh, the name no one else has heard.  And then God goes back to the plan, telling Moses to assemble the elders, telling Moses what he’s going to say, to whom, when, and why.  God gives Moses a more detailed plan to put him at ease.

Now Moses has been talking to a burning bush for a few minutes, and that burning bush has just introduced itself as a god, and Moses has been assigned a pivotal role in his people’s future.  But Moses doesn’t feel confident, or impressed.  No, Moses responds to this incredible scene by asking, “What if they do not believe me, and do not listen to me, but say: Adonai did not appear to you?”  In other words, “Okay I’m convinced, but I’m not sure I can convince anyone else.”  So God performs some magic for Moses, turning the staff into a snake and then back again, and putting scales on Moses’ hand and then taking them away, and God says then “And if they do not believe you or pay heed to the first sign, they will believe the second.  And if they are not convinced by both these signs and still do not heed you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and it…will turn to blood…”

Wow.  God tells Moses, “I’m giving you three, count them, three miraculous acts to prove to the people that I’m God and you’re their leader.”  Let’s remember, God has now chosen Moses, told him he’s going to be very important, told him a secret name, and given him three parachutes in case he runs into trouble.   This must be enough to convince Moses!  But it’s not!  Moses says “Please, O Adonai, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that you have spoken to your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God responds, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, Adonai? Now go, and I will be with you.”  God tells Moses, I knew all this when I picked you, and I still picked, now let’s get going, I’m with you!  Clearly Moses would be comforted and ready at this point!  But, he’s not!

“Please,” Moses says, “Oh Adonai, make someone else your agent.”  And finally, God has had enough.  God becomes angry and says, “Fine!  Go get your brother Aaron, ‘You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth, I will be with you and with him as you speak and tell both of you what to do.’”  Back to our personal visions, the most important person in the world picks us for a pivotal role, they give us comfort, give us their name, show us how we can convince people of our skills, tells us that despite our flaws they still think we’re right for the job, and say, “if you’re that scared, you don’t even have to speak, let your brother speak!”

And that’s what finally puts Moses at ease, and he accepts God’s offer.  Some of the rabbis might call Moses humble for this situation, but if you’ve truly  read these verses, this isn’t humility; it’s fear, it’s self-doubt, it’s procrastination, it’s push-back.

It’s human.

This year, we may get the call to do something important, something big like voting, marching, or protesting, and when that call comes, it will most likely not be from God, or from a burning bush, but we can choose how we react to those moments in our lives when we have the opportunity to shine.  And we should remember that even Moses, the greatest prophet of them all, came up with every excuse in the book to try to get out of the role he was destined for.  But in the end, he was convinced, and he went forward to shine.

So the first lesson goes quite well with our second.  The first is that we have to pay attention in order to find opportunity, and the second is that it’s perfectly natural and human to be unsure of ourselves, it’s understandable to come up with self-deprecating excuses as to why we are not worthy for greatness.  But everyone is rooting for us in those moments, so eventually we need to listen to the words of our friends and family, who can convince us with those words, “they picked you, they wouldn’t have picked you if they didn’t believe in you,” or “don’t worry, I’ll be with you the whole way.”  We need to listen to these words, just as Moses did, so that we can shine, so that we can be who we are destined to be.

You can only imagine that in the six chapters of parshat shmot there are many other lessons, but let’s start with those two; after all, it’s early in 2020 and we have plenty of more moments together.  May 2020 be the year where we all pay attention a little more, and remember that even those who we hold to be our untouchable mentors and heroes had the same doubts that we have, and that didn’t stop them, and it shouldn’t stop us.


About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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