God In the Midst of Fire
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Parashat Shemot God in the Midst of the Fire
By Rav Michael Hattin
The Book of Bereishit poignantly concluded with the death of Yosef and with his mummification by Pharaoh's skilled practitioners of the medical arts. Placed in a bejeweled sarcophagus and entombed, his final testament, however, is neither a paean to his patron's prowess and a charge to those that follow to loyally embrace the god king's service, nor a self-serving recounting of all of the Viceroy's storied adventures and accomplishments, but rather a simple and straightforward prayer and plea to his surviving brethren:Yosef said to his brothers: Behold I am about to die, but God will surely remember you and bring you forth from this land, to the land that He swore to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Ya'acov. Yosef placed an oath upon the people of Israel saying: God will surely remember you, and you shall bring forth my bones from here (Bereishit 50:24-25).
With Yosef's death and the passing of the generation that had come down from Canaan to sojourn in the fertile Delta, the winds of change begin to blow. A "new Pharaoh" ascends to the throne of the Two Lands, a xenophobic reformer who regards the prosperous Israelites inhabiting Goshen as a potential threat to Egypt's continued well-being. Imperceptibly and incrementally, his successively harsher decrees cleverly veiled as patriotic pronouncements (and what resident alien could afford to be unpatriotic?), the Israelites are enslaved. National service soon gives way to subjugation, subjugation to enslavement, and enslavement to murder, as Israel's carefully cultivated dreams of finding repose along the banks of the glittering Nile are violently ground into the clay bricks that raise Pharaoh's store cities to the skies.
INTIMATIONS OF DIVINE INVOLVEMENT
But there is more to the matter than the tyranny of a mercurial ruler, the lengthy calculations of callous technocrats concerning how to most efficiently and effectively implement the national interest, and the inevitable outcry and state-sanctioned slaughter of the oppressed but powerless classes. There is also a God, a patient and powerful Deity who cannot tolerate cruelty and injustice forever. And while human history seamlessly unfolds, ostensibly oblivious to any effects save those caused by the material interactions of the protagonists that claim to write it, God's quiet interventions irrevocably change its course. A man from the tribe of Levi marries a woman, a child is soon born and placed upon the Nile to aimlessly float towards his mysterious fate, and Pharaoh's own daughter then unwittingly unleashes the convoluted process that will finally destroy her father and free the disenfranchised from bondage.
Parashat Shemot, then, is about the story of nations. In Egypt, the people of Israel are born, and sunk in its mire they begin to mature. If Sefer Bereishit could safely be described as the account of individuals striving to live their lives in the presence of God, to embrace His mission while tolerating His silence, to overcome internal sloth and external opposition in the performance of His ineluctable will, then Sefer Shemot is about a people. How does a people come to recognize God in their collective lives, how do they remain steadfast in their faith even while their world comes crashing down around them, how do they not succumb to despair even as the exile grinds interminably on? And by what mysterious mechanism does God intervene to save, His involvement concealed from the prying eyes of the masses, even while the tyrant himself blasphemes His holy name?
The seeming serendipity that saves baby Moshe from oblivion is repeated once again as he absentmindedly tends to Yitro's sheep in the wilderness of Midian, after having fled from Pharaoh's presence in the aftermath of smiting the Egyptian taskmaster (2:11-15). This time, Moshe leads the sheep to distant pastures and then is unexpectedly drawn to Sinai's summit by the astonishing vision of a thorn bush that does not burn. Once captured by its radiant rays, God speaks to him out of the midst of the fire:He said: I am the Lord of your ancestors, the Lord of Avraham, the Lord of Yitzchak and the Lord of Ya'acov, but Moshe hid his face for he was afraid to gaze at the Almighty. God said: I have surely seen the oppression of My people that are in Egypt, and I have heard their outcries on account of their taskmasters, for I know their pain. I will go down to save them from the clutches of Egypt and to bring them forth from that land, to a good and expansive land, to a land flowing with milk and honey (3:6-8).
Thus it is that Moshe's mission is placed upon his reluctant shoulders, for try as he might to evade God's charge, the Deity is adamant. There will be no turning back and no prevarication. Entrusted with wonders and with words of encouragement, with a shepherd's staff and simple cloak now transformed into the regalia of leadership, Moshe is sent back to Egypt. The faith and trust expected of Israel, even as they languish under the weight of bricks and mortar, is now expected of Moshe as well. How will he remain steadfast even as the Pharaoh mocks his mission (5:2-5), even as the people lash out at him for having inspired them with hopes of liberation and then himself dashed those hopes by bringing upon them Pharaoh's wrath (5:20-21), even as God bides His time and will not intervene (5:22-6:1)?
The existential answer to all of these questions, to the gnawing doubts that undermine our reliance even while we fervently want to trust, is perhaps provided by the episode of the burning bush itself. The imagery of a consuming fire is one that is, of course, commonly employed in the context of the Tanakh to describe the manifestation of God's presence. For example, when the people finally are freed from Egyptian bondage, after the final plague has destroyed the resolve of Pharaoh and beaten his imperiousness into the dust, God leads their nocturnal journeys by the Pillar of Fire (13:21-22). Later, God will appear to Israel out of the midst of Sinai's burning summit, in order to reveal to them His precious teaching (19:18). Later still, they will dedicate the building of a Tabernacle to His glory, and He will demonstrate His satisfaction with their endeavors by the descent of a heavenly fire (VaYikra 9:23-24). In fact, towards the end of his career, Moshe will even describe the Deity in just these terms: "For God your Lord is a consuming fire, a zealous God!" (Devarim 4:24).
But what of the bush that will not be consumed? How are we to understand its significance?Why did the Holy One blessed be He appear to Moshe in this fashion? It is because he thought in his heart that perhaps the Egyptians would destroy the people of Israel. Therefore, the Holy One blessed be He showed him a fire that burned but did not consume. He said to him: just as the thorn bush burns in the fire but is not consumed, so too the Egyptians cannot destroy the people of Israel (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 2:5).
According to the Midrash, the lowly and despised thorn bush is none other than a symbol for the people of Israel oppressed in Egypt. Like a desiccated shrub bereft of luscious fruit and unable to find relief from the burning desert sun, the people of Israel labor thanklessly under the watchful eyes of their overlords, possessing neither the strength nor the resolve to change their tragic fate. In the meantime, a conflagration engulfs them, the terrible blows of the taskmasters sanctioned and sponsored by the cruel pronouncements of a despot claiming descent from the sun disk itself. Therefore, the Midrash relates, God indicates to the incredulous prophet that Israel will not be destroyed, that the fire of the oppression will not consume them, and that they will survive to merit better days.
AN ALTERNATIVE READING
While the reading of the Midrash is encouraging, it fails to address the plethora of other references that see fire as the hallmark of the Divine presence. Here, the Midrash legitimately regards the fire as an expression of burning oppression and enslavement that threatens to consume, but according to its reading, the fire refers to the Egyptians rather than to God. There is, however, a different reading preserved in the later Midrash Tanchuma, and brought by Rashi (11th century, France) with some variations:What is the meaning of the "midst of the fire"? Just like the heart of a person resides in the upper third of his body, so too the fire burned from the upper third of the bush and above. And why out of the midst of a thorn bush and not out of a taller tree such as the palm? For the Holy One blessed be He said in His Torah that "I am with them in their troubles" (Tehillim 91). Just as they are suffering in oppression, so too I am in the confines of the bush that is entirely thorns (Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 14).
Here, the Midrash poignantly links two related ideas. The fire that burns in the midst of the bush is like the heart of the person, while the thorns that surround it signify the pain and difficulty of the oppression. The thorn bush, then, is not a reference to lowly Israel but only to the troubles that engulf and sting them. And the fire does not refer to Egyptian cruelty but rather to the Divine presence. In other words, God appears to Moshe out of the midst of the burning thorn bush in order to show His complete identification with their plight. If Israel suffers under the whip of Egyptian taskmasters, then it is AS IF God suffers with them. If Israel is stung by brutal bondage, then it is AS IF God experiences the same.
While there is a decided theological danger in ascribing such bold anthropomorphic qualities to God, a danger that Jewish tradition well recognizes and respects even while other religious traditions make Him incarnate and human, there is also occasionally a need to know that God is not absent and removed, but near and in complete identification. And it is this fundamental truth that the Midrash Tanchuma wishes to communicate by its daring reading of the episode, even while the Midrash Rabbah provides a safer explanation for the matter. The answer (partial as it is) to the vexing question of how to overcome despair and maintain trust while "reality" would seem to dictate otherwise, is the recognition that we do not suffer alone. God is not remote and unconcerned but intimately aware. He understands our plight and is nearby. Like a proverbial heart that beats and gives life, His consuming fire does not destroy but rather sustains. The very flames that in our less sanguine moments we imagine want to incinerate us are at the very same time the source of our survival. And so it is that He appears to the hesitant shepherd from the midst of the thorn bush, as Moshe wonders aloud concerning where he will derive the strength to lead the people out of Pharaoh's bondage and on to the promised land. And as Israel stands at Sinai to receive His Torah, perhaps themselves wondering from where they shall derive the strength to serve as His chosen nation and as the bearers of His truth into a skeptical and harsh world, it is the burning fire of His presence upon its thorny summit that sustains them as well.
No human life is lived without troubles great and small, anguished moments sometimes unbearable, and anxious feelings of abandonment and despair. But to live in God's presence is to acknowledge and embrace His involvement and concern, not as a grand illusion but as a nurturing and sustaining truth. As the events of Sefer Shemot unfold, its personal narrative of Moshe's spiritual maturation intertwined with the overarching saga of the people of Israel and their liberation, it is the encounter at the burning bush that serves as their fitting introduction.