Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Sh'mot 5755
December 24, 1994 21 Tevet 5755
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Torah devotes nearly 40 verses to the exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush. No divine-human encounter of a personal nature gets similar coverage. The wealth of material gives us an idea of how revelation works, then and now. For the Torah is more than a collection of one-time religious experiences beyond our ken. God's voice continues to fill the universe. We need to relearn how to hear it.
The text clearly suggests that God addresses only those who have primed themselves to listen. The first turn must be made by us. It is Moses who leaves the indulgent lifestyle of the royal palace to witness the suffering of his kinsfolk in the inner city. Comfort and power have not quashed his sense of attachment. Indeed, he is congenitally unable to endure the sight of injustice and acting on his compassion, quickly endangers his life.
Amid the silence and safety of Midian, Moses still broods about the fate of Israel. Distance does not induce forgetfulness. Is he, with his knowledge of the court, abhorrence of injustice and devotion to his people, called upon to challenge the brutality of the system? Word reaches Moses that the Pharaoh who sought his life has died. Is this the reprieve for which he has been waiting to return to Egypt and dare to end Israel's enslavement?
His work as a shepherd brings Moses into the vicinity of a holy place, "Horeb, the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1)." There his eye falls on a bush aflame in glowing sunlight without turning to ashes. Is this a symbol of the durability of Israel? Whatever the intensity of its suffering, Israel cannot be destroyed. Moses becomes attuned to hear God's word with his inner ear.
Like Maimonides, I believe that the experience of God's speech is an entirely inner experience. It is an opening of mind to mind or soul to soul through the medium of thought. Our consciousness is a speck of divinity with the natural capacity to commune with its cosmic Parent. No one expressed this conception with more exquisite conciseness than Isaac Ibn Ghiyath (1038-89) in a Hebrew poem splendidly translated by Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin of the Seminary.
By name I know You, High and Lofty One; Your deeds reveal You to me, not my eyes. The secrets of Your mind weary the wise - Too wonderful, too lofty, too profound.The Torah is nothing if not the ceaseless human quest to fathom the nature and will of God, rewarded on occasion by the inner illumination of divine response.
I sought You out and found You in my thoughts: My heart has eyes within that let me see. The soul You breathed in me clings to Your throne, Though it resides in a battered, aching clod.
Can seen, unseeing mortals hope to grasp The awful, glorious, unseen, seeing God? (The Gazelle, p. 195)
The midrash plausibly posits that the first voice heard by Moses is that of his father. God begins the dialogue by saying, "I am the God of your father (Exodus 3:6)." The death of Pharaoh brings to mind Moses's father, who pleads with his son to seize the moment. "The time for you to return home has come. Your destiny awaits you. God has endowed you uniquely for the role of redeemer." But in whose name shall Moses speak? By what authority would he take leadership? Moses is as agitated about whether Israel would accept his leadership as he is about the reception that Pharaoh would accord him. In truth, his own people know him less well than Pharaoh! To them he is as much an outsider as Herzl and Nordau would be millennia later.
Moses fixes on God's name because, as Maimonides points out, he is the first adherent of God asked to speak out beyond the confines of the family, the first to take the new conception of God public. For the patriarchs, the allegiance to God remained a private affair, the faith of a simple clan. But in Egypt that clan had grown into a large ethnic group. Moses knew that he would need to persuade and proselytize, to do battle for his convictions.
The conception of God expands in the process. The God in whose name Moses would confront Pharaoh is a being whose grandeur is beyond depiction, the very source of all existence. But this transcendent God is also immanent, nearby, full of compassion. Both dimensions are signified by God's name as a form of the verb "to be," "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh - I am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14)." Again the midrash catches the note of solace: "Tell Israel that just as I am with them in this instance of oppression, I shall be with them in those to come." The modern philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke of God as "the great companion, the fellow-sufferer who understands." The ancestral God of the patriarchs is identical with the God of the universe and the individual, of the cosmic order and human justice.
The power of this extraordinary dialogue is its disarming honesty. Moses's conflicted state is not resolved in a flash. Unlike Abraham, he puts up stiff resistance to God's commands and God does not overwhelm him into submission. At the outset, Moses is hardly Kierkegaard's knight of faith (as he calls Abraham). Even after Moses finally agrees to embark on the mission, he is afflicted with recurring doubts.
The Torah expatiates on the calling of Moses not only because he is the dominant figure in the birth of Israel as a nation, but also because it is the paradigmatic revelatory experience. God awaits those in search of God, speaking silently through the manifold miracles of the everyday. In the words of the midrash: "There is no place bereft of God's presence, even the lowly bramble bush."
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,