Parashat Sh'mot

Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Triennial Reading: Exodus 1:1 - 2:25
December 29, 2007 / 20 Tevet 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi David Ackerman, Rabbi, National Outreach, JTS.

A recent collection of one-liners and witticisms entitled 1,003 Great Things About Being Jewish contains a section called “What Passersby Said About the Burning Bush.” My favorite item on the list goes like this: “Ignore it; it’s only trying to get attention.”

Moses, of course, doesn’t ignore it. His encounter with our attention-seeking bush lies not only at the heart of Parashat Sh’mot; it also describes the essential elements of spiritual awareness in the eyes of our tradition.

Here is the Torah’s telling, in the opening six verses of the third chapter of Exodus:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the LORD 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 the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. 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. (Exod. 3:1-6)

It turns out that the way in which Moses chooses not to ignore the bush is filled with subtlety. Don Isaac Abarbanel (Portugal, Spain, Italy; 1437-1508) alerts us to the nuances of Moses’s approach with a pair of questions, always the starting point of his commentary. “Since this was Moses’ first prophetic experience, when ‘an angel of the LORD’ appeared to him (Exod. 3:2), why was he surprised at the bush not burning up, rather than at this more marvelous sight?” How can it be that only the obvious grabs Moses’ attention as it obscures the more significant reality that lies before his eyes? Abarbanel’s next question sharpens his case: “If Moses was standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exod. 3:5), why did God wait until he turned to look before telling him to remove his sandals?” Why can’t Moses get to the bottom line more efficiently, and why does God exhibit so much patience with him?

A slow, careful reading of this passage provides powerful responses to Abarbanel’s queries. Moshe Greenberg notes “a motif of gradualness” in this passage, essentially arguing that Moses’s “growing awareness” is the point of the Torah’s story. Before leaning on Greenberg to identify the stages of Moses’s epiphany, a word about fire is in order. Fire in the Tanakh symbolizes passion. The key proof text for that notion arrives in words attributed to Moses himself that describe God as aish okh’la (a consuming fire) and as el kana (an impassioned God) (Deuteronomy ). God as consuming fire stands in direct opposition to the image of a fiery bush that is not consumed—v’hasneh einenu u’kal. The bush’s resilience tells us that something truly significant is occurring here.

The first step in Moses’s journey of spiritual awareness involves taking the time to notice our attention-seeking fiery bush. As the peshat commentary in Etz Hayim aptly puts it: “to see that a bush is on fire is easy; to see that it is not consumed takes time and patience . . . ” Moses practices mindfulness here, the necessary first step of awareness. Thoughtfully, carefully, he opens his eyes.

Only then does God call out to Moses, leading him to step two, the recognition that he stands in the face of mystery, on “holy ground,” and therefore must remove his sandals, coupled with his statement of accountability embedded in the word hineini—“here I am.” Here Moses exhibits a profoundly patient kind of reflection, a posture that enables him truly to begin to grapple with the mystery into whose presence he has wandered. Step two is big, and it’s deep, and it’s powerful; but it’s not the endpoint of Moses’s journey.

The humility represented by Moses’s hiding his face at God’s first-person self-introduction—using the form anokhi, a word we’ll see again when God delivers the commandments to Moses from the very same mountaintop—completes this cycle of deepening awareness. Thoughtfulness, reflection, humility: Moses shows us the way to genuine spiritual awareness.

Moses’s example matters profoundly in our world. Having lived through 9/11, we know what can happen when religious passion burns without a measure of gradualness to temper it. But we also know that gradualness divorced from passion is unsatisfying in the extreme. In this terse but rich story, Moses acts out the great spiritual task of our moment (and of his moment, and perhaps of all moments), which is to reclaim the creative tension that connects passion with reflective, thoughtful humility.  

Done well, Moses’s example charts a path toward fruitful growth and well-being. An old interpretive motif, traceable in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew sources, teaches that the burning bush not only was not consumed, it actually remained green and even sprouted fresh blossoms. Thoughtfully encountered, fire yields growth. That’s Moses’s message.

A century ago, Solomon Schechter chose the burning bush as JTS’s emblem. It described well his unique blend of passion and reflection. May it long describe our commitment to a spirituality that fruitfully combines fire and humility: thoughtful reflection coupled with a burning passion to notice and experience God’s goodness in our still-unredeemed world.   

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.