Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Sh'mot 5754
January 1, 1994 18 Tevet 5754
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
When Solomon Schechter assumed the presidency of the Seminary some 90 years ago, he chose for its motto and symbol a verse from this week's parasha: "And the bush was not consumed (Exodus 3:2)." I believe he intended to convey thereby his conviction in the eternity of Judaism. It would not perish in the new world as it had not perished in the old, because its power derived not from numbers or wealth, but from the spirit. As a center of Torah, the Seminary would fortify that spirit with a large measure of truthful piety.
The burning bush is the cradle of Judaism. Had it not caught Moses's eye, he might have remained a shepherd in Midian. However, the sight triggered a dialogue with God that changed the course of human history. The symbol is still meaningful to us, but what about the experience itself? How does God speak? Why is it that we have lost our ability to hear the language of God?
The Torah makes it very clear that Moses did not hear God's voice by accident. We don't stumble into a revelatory experience. It follows only after we have readied ourselves to be addressed. Moses had chosen to walk the path that would bring him face to face with God.
Despite years of isolation in Pharaoh's palace and exposure to the very best of Egyptian culture, Moses did not forget his lowly origins. Without prodding, he ventured forth as a young man to learn about the fate of his people, probably many times. The key to understanding our narrative is to realize that events are telescoped and compressed. As readers, we need to elongate the time line of the text.
On one of his trips, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave and was overcome by an impulse to end the pain. After a precautionary glance around, he killed and hid the object of his rage. The incident is revealing: Moses was unable to bear the sight of suffering. It impelled him to intervene rashly and recklessly. This is most likely the reason he left the comfort of the palace in the first place: word had reached him of the oppression of his brethren.
Two similar incidents confirm the trait. Soon thereafter Moses is moved to end a fight between two Israelites, though when the aggressor confronts Moses with knowledge of his murder of the Egyptian, he is forced to flee the country. Again in Midian, Moses rises to defend the daughters of a Midianite priest, his future father-in-law, when a band of shepherds seeks to deprive them of the water they had just drawn for their flock. Insightfully, the midrash comments that God does not bestow leadership on people until they have proven themselves in a matter of little import. In three separate cases, Moses exhibited a visceral intolerance for human suffering, caused by injustice.I suspect that the domestic happiness Moses found in Midian did not entirely suppress his concern for his people. To be sure, he could not risk returning as long as the incumbent Pharaoh continued to reign. But when news reached him years later that he had died, the suffering of Israel surged back into his consciousness. A new Pharaoh might well grant him amnesty, as often happened at coronations.
It was in this animated state of reflection that Moses came upon the arresting sight of a bush, in flames but unravaged. Whatever the nature of the phenomenon, it evoked in his mind an image of Israel crushed by slavery but not destroyed. He halted in reverence and anguish. God had suddenly intruded into an internal debate intensified by the death of Pharaoh.
According to one midrash, God initially spoke in the voice of Amram, his father, so as not to frighten Moses. Not only had he never been addressed by God before, but his father long ago must have urged him to seize the leadership of his downtrodden folk. Wasn't he ideally suited for the task? As an Egyptian prince, he was Joseph reincarnate. He knew the language of the land and the ways of the court. Above all, compassion for Israel filled his heart. In the silence of the desert, the voices of his father, of his conscience, and of God converged to push him to return.
The power of the dialogue lies in its honesty. The ambivalence of Moses is not easily overcome. A deep sense of inadequacy offsets the urge to act. Moses professes to be without any knowledge of God, to a fear of failure, to an inability to speak fluently. Like later prophets, he resists God's call. Neither success nor glory are assured.
What I think finally carried the day was a glimpse of the larger purpose of the mission. At the burning bush, Moses linked his congenital anger at injustice and his sense of national responsibility with God's will. To return to Egypt was no longer a mere impulse but part of a divine vision for a new order. The greater task was to eliminate all forms of oppression, not only the instance of slavery in Egypt. Moses had rediscovered the legacy of Abraham. To be a blessing for all nations, Israel had to craft a society that would live by the divine norms of justice and righteousness (Genesis 18:19). Beyond the signs and wonders of the moment, God promised Moses partnership, never to abandon Israel in its historic quest for morality and monotheism.
The midrash speculates on why Moses first encountered God in a place of desolation. And it responds: To make the point that God is accessible anywhere, whenever we are primed to hear. Not to see, but to hear, that is the spirit of monotheism. Troubled by guilt and free of all external stimuli, Moses is lost in concentration, soon shattered by God's "still small voice" (I Kings 19:12). That is still the way God speaks, except that today we no longer tolerate feelings of guilt and are shackled by distractions. "And so the word of the Lord is rare...and there is no vision (I Samuel 3:1)."
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,