The Voice From the Burning Bush
Exodus Rabbah 45:5
שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה מה
א”ר יהודה בר נחמיה טירון היה משה לנבואה, אמר הקב”ה אם נגלה אני עליו בקול גבוה אני מבעתו, ואם בקול נמוך בוסר הוא על הנבואה, מה עשה הקב”ה נגלה עליו בקולו של אביו…
“And he said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence!’ Rabbi Judah ben Nehemiah said: since Moses, was a novice in prophecy, God said—if I reveal Myself unto him with a loud voice, I will frighten him, and if in a low voice, he will think lightly of the prophecy. So what did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He revealed himself to him in the voice of his father.”
Years ago, I taught first graders at a local synagogue school. We frequently acted out scenes from the Torah and, when it came to God’s speaking parts, the students had a very good question: what does God’s voice sound like and how do we know what God is saying to us?
The more famous midrash is the one from Brachot: “With what voice did God speak to Moses? With Moses’s voice” [45a]. This is the one that came to mind in that moment, and as I heard myself telling the children this understanding of God’s voice, I saw their eyes light up. Moses heard God’s voice as his own; each of us hears God’s voice as our own, hearing what we need to hear from the thunderous words of revelation that are each of ours and yet so difficult to discern.
Our midrash above, however, has a different take: Moses heard the voice of his father. A voice of love, authority, of earliest connection. Or do we question that, and wonder what Moses’s relationship with his father was? After all, he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace; we have little information about his interaction with his biological father or a royal stepfather. What does the midrash mean in suggesting that Moses heard God’s voice as the voice of his father?
There was one little girl in that first-grade class who was not satisfied with my answer-rooted-in-midrash. As soon as I saw her hand go up, my heart sank, for I knew my answer to the class’s question was lost on her. She had been born deaf, and with the help of a recently implanted cochlear device could hear. “What about the people who can’t hear?” she asked. “How do they hear God’s voice?” I hesitated, and then my answer came to me: “They hear God’s voice as the voice in their head.” The voice in our heads—an echo of our father’s voice, and mother’s, and of so many teachers and life experiences and emotions; the voice of conscience, the one that whispers to us night and day. This is the voice with which God spoke to Moses, and with which God speaks to each of us.
As the midrash plays with the voice Moses heard—when God speaks with him at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, at the Burning Bush, at the top of the mountain—we carry the questions those first graders put so well: what does God’s voice sound like, and how do we know what God is saying to us?