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The Encounter at the Burning Bush

Rav Michael Hattin




Scarcely has Sefer Bereishit concluded, with its reassuring conclusion of Israelite repose in Goshen's verdant valleys, when Parashat Shemot shatters the illusion with the rise of a "new Pharaoh".  All too briefly, the era of Yosef's prominence passes, to be succeeded by a period of political instability that in the end sees the ascent of a new dynasty to the throne.  The old guard and its institutions are summarily dismissed, the undeniable contributions of Yosef to the advancement of Pharaoh's own interests now only a faded memory.  The budding Israelite people, at first regarded as an economic asset, as a loyal middle class, as a source of cultural ferment fueling new ideas, is suddenly recast as a liability and as a threat.  In a tragic precursor to events that have been played out innumerable times over the painful course of Israelite history, the welcome and promise of Egyptian exile is eventually and inexorably transformed into a twisted nightmare.


Quickly the new Pharaoh solidifies his rule.  Harsh decrees follow in quick succession, as the Israelites are first pressed into national service building store cities, and then deployed to do backbreaking agricultural labor and to dig irrigation canals, but all to no avail.  Refusing to surrender their incurable proclivity for a fantastic optimism bordering on self-delusion, the people of Israel continue to multiply, to grow, to live and to die in anticipation of better days.


But Pharaoh is obstinate, Israel's stubborn resolve matched only by his own: "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra, the other Pu'a.  He said: 'when you birth the Hebrew women, look upon the birth stool.  If the child is a male then kill him, but if it is a female then let her live!'" (1:15-16).  The midwives, of course, refuse to comply, arousing the god king's ire but securing for themselves the precious gift of God's watchful providence.  Finally, in a terrifying moment that later becomes a diabolical staple of Jewish history, Pharaoh utters the ineffable decree: "Pharaoh commanded all of his people saying: 'cast all male babies into the Nile, allow only the females to live!'" (1:22).  But see how he could but conclude his wicked words with anything but the hope of life: "If the child is a male then kill him, but if it is a female then LET HER LIVE!, cast all male babies into the Nile, allow only the females TO LIVE!"  Against his will, in spite of himself, Pharaoh pronounces sentence: the people of Israel will survive.





This first unsettling section of our Parasha is succeeded by the account of Moshe's birth and miraculous preservation.  In defiance of Pharaoh's decree, Yocheved hides her newborn, finally fashioning a small chest of reeds and placing her infant within it.  Pathetically, she releases it onto the life-giving waters of the Nile, propelling it forward with the prayer that her son will endure.  Unexpectedly, Pharaoh's own daughter at that moment bathes near the river's banks, and spying the curious craft floating among the rushes, sends her handmaiden to retrieve it.  In the end, of course, Moshe is saved by her, to be raised by the daughter of the vicious tyrant who at that very moment busies himself with new and oppressive measures to impose upon the enslaved Hebrews.  Thus, this second hopeful section of the Parasha, in glaring contrast to the first, indicates that the mechanism of redemption, set into motion by the silent but never absent God of Israel and unconsciously triggered by mundane human choices, cannot be stayed.


But there is much distance to be covered before Moshe dons the mantle of liberator!  His attainment of manhood coincides with a growing identification with his enslaved brethren and a heightened sensitivity to their plight, that eventually finds expression in his indignant killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, and later still in his retort to the striving Hebrews.  Forced to flee in the aftermath of those events, he eventually arrives at Midyan where he rescues the daughters of Yitro from the shepherds.  Though a cursory reading of the text might suggest a quick succession of events, in the view of the Ramban (13th century, Spain), Moshe is in flight from Egypt and from the Pharaoh for a very long time:


In my opinion…Moshe fled from Pharaoh when he was a young man…certainly not older than twenty, and he was eighty years old when he stood before him again (7:7).  If so, Moshe spent about sixty years in flight…from place to place to far-off lands…coming to Midyan towards the end of that period and there remaining…(commentary to 2:23-24).





In Midyan, Moshe takes Zippora for his wife, and while the Israelites chafe interminably under the yoke of Pharaoh, Moshe's self-imposed exile unfolds uneventfully.  Until, that is, the fateful day that he leads the flocks to farther pastures:


Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yitro his father-in-law who was the priest of Midyan.  He led the sheep beyond the wilderness until he came to the mountain of the Lord at Chorev.  The angel of God appeared to him in the heart of fire from the midst of the bush ('sneh').  He saw that while the bush burned with fire, it was not consumed.  Moshe said: 'I will turn aside and see this awesome sight, why does the bush not burn?'  God saw that he turned aside to see, and the Lord called to him from the midst of the bush saying 'Moshe, Moshe', and he said 'here I am'.  He said: 'do not draw close to here.  Rather, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is hallowed earth'.  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 upon the Lord…(3:1-6).


In a moment that strikingly parallels the "chance" encounter of the bathing Pharaoh's daughter with the floating box of reeds, an unusual manifestation that she cannot help but be drawn towards, Moshe is similarly lured away from his flocks by a remarkable vision of another sort: a bush that burns but is not consumed.  And just as Pharaoh's daughter unknowingly meets destiny among the reeds of the Nile, Moshe's unwittingly confronts his own ineluctable fate at Chorev.  But while the true nature of the encounter of Pharaoh's daughter is concealed under many layers of cause and effect, its eventual outcome at that moment shrouded and unclear, the import of Moshe's meeting is writ large and unmistakable:


God said: 'I have surely seen the plight of My people in Egypt, I have heard their cries from before their taskmasters, for I know their pain.  I descend to save them from Egypt and to bring them out of that land, to a good and expansive land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite, Chittite, Emorite, Perizite, Chivite and Yevusite.  Now, the cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them.  NOW THEREFORE GO AND I WILL SEND YOU TO PHARAOH, AND LIBERATE MY PEOPLE ISRAEL FROM EGYPT! (3:7-10).





Perhaps we may regard the two events, removed in time from each other by almost eighty years, not as two disparate but literally linked narratives but rather as pivotal moments in a continuous and unfolding process, the process of Moshe's spiritual maturation.  Providentially rescued from the Nile's brimming waters, groomed from birth for a great and awesome task but blissfully unaware of it for much of his life, Moshe thus joins the august company of many of Sefer Bereishit's champions of trust.  Figures such as Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya'acov and especially Yosef invariably also underwent a similar developmental process that often began with uncertainty or denial, and only later became dawning awareness and self-transformation as the full scope of God's mission was finally embraced.


But how differently is Moshe summoned!  His complacent sleep is not disturbed by portentous dreams or unsettling visions.  Rather, God speaks to him while he is awake, calling to him from the midst of the fire in no uncertain terms.  Here then, still only at the BEGINNING of his prophetic career, Moshe parts company with the others, who must content themselves with Divine communications that are less direct at best and often no more than an inspired insight concerning a mundane confluence of events.  Not for naught does the Torah declare at the very end of his vocation, in words that are later echoed and enhanced by tradition to become a doctrine, that "there arose no more in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom God had known face to face…" (Devarim/Deuteronomy 33:1).





But there is more.  Let us consider for a moment the elements of God's summons.  Moshe, minding his flocks, is inextricably drawn to the region of Chorev, an arid and barren mountain range deep in the Sinai Peninsula.  There he sees from afar a fiery vision upon one of its craggy peaks, a bush called a "sneh" that smolders and burns but is not consumed.  As Moshe comes closer, God addresses him from the "heart of the fire" and Moshe responds: "here I am".  God warns him to maintain his distance, to respectfully remove his footwear so as not to tread upon the mount's holy ground, and Moshe complies.  God then announces himself as the God of his ancestors, but Moshe hides his face in awe and fear, "for he was afraid to gaze upon the Lord…"  Though God goes on to spell out His unique role for Moshe, the neophyte prophet is noncommittal, reluctant, and full of self-doubt.  "Please, my Lord, send another!" he cries, but to no avail, for God's choice is irrevocable.


Let us consider the parallel event, to which God already alludes early in the course of His attempts to win Moshe over:


Moshe said to the Lord: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should liberate the people of Israel from Egypt?"  God responded: 'I will be with you, and this is the sign that I have sent you: when you liberate the people of Israel from Egypt, then you will serve the Lord upon this very mountain!'" (3:11-12).


In other words, the Revelation at Sinai, the people's pivotal moment that they face soon after their liberation, is not only announced by God at the outset, but also strikingly mirrored by Moshe's own experience when God calls him to His service.  Thus, three short months after the Exodus, the people of Israel who are laden with "sheep and cattle, very great flocks" (12:38), arrive at "the wilderness of Sinai" and encamp opposite "the mountain" (19:1-2).  God calls to them to "sanctify themselves" (19:10), and warns them not to "ascend the mountain or touch its extremities" (19:12), an unambiguous echo of His instructions to Moshe to shed his footwear and not draw too close.  At the moment immediately preceding the Revelation, Mount Sinai "was covered with smoke, for God had descended upon it in fire" (19:18), while the parallel passage in Sefer Devarim describes "the mountain burning with fire until the HEART of heaven, darkness, cloud and thick vapor" (4:11).  The people, hearing God's voice, tremble in fear and then retreat, afraid to anymore experience the revelation of His presence (20:15). 


All of these associations are embodied in the lowly bush of thorns or "sneh", for "…it is a type of dry thorn.  So is it called in Arabic, and MOUNT SINAI IS SO CALLED ON ACCOUNT OF THE SNEH (that is to be found there)" ('Long' commentary of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, 12th century Spain, on Shemot 3:2).  The later Rabbinic tradition, based upon an extremely thorough reading of the text, may very well also have had just such parallels in mind.  It fancifully maintains that Moshe's shepherd staff, the insignia of leadership that God bids him to take hold at the end of their encounter, was fashioned at twilight on the sixth day of Creation out of impervious sapphire, just like the two Tablets of the Decalogue themselves, the concrete commemorations of the Revelation at Sinai (see Mishna Avot 5:6 and variants).  In other words, Moshe's encounter at Sinai presages God's giving of the Torah to the people of Israel from its rocky summit.





While the textual correspondences are quite convincing and certainly invite us to link Moshe's meeting with God to Israel's subsequent encounter, we must attempt to address the more profound message of the similarity.  Why does the Torah draw a parallel between the election of the lawgiver Moshe and the election of Israel?  Let us consider once again the broader context.  As we saw earlier, the text, beginning with its account of the onset of the enslavement, continuing with a description of the birth and "miraculous" preservation of baby Moshe, and finally sketching the tale of his selection and investiture by God, essentially traces the process of his maturation. 


Though he grows up in the shaded and sheltered halls of Pharaoh's palace, Moshe soon realizes that his origins are not the same, his destiny somehow different from that of his adoptive grandfather – the oppressor.  It takes him some time to precisely formulate the nature of the inner struggle, but the die is soon cast by Moshe's slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster.  Surprisingly, that potentially charged moment, though it propels Moshe into prolonged exile, does little to change the spiritual trajectory of his life.  Adopting the view of the Ramban, Moshe remains in exile for a period of six decades, a drab period of stasis that merits not a single explicit line of Biblical text!  Only at Chorev, to which Moshe has inadvertently stumbled with the sheep (or has he been inexplicably drawn?), are the ancient conflicts reawakened with the vision of the burning bush.  Suddenly, God appears and offers to Moshe the opportunity to complete his unfinished work, to effect the exodus of the hapless slaves for whom he felt such strong identification such a long time ago.


But how reluctant Moshe is now, unsure, unconfident and full of existential doubt: "who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, that I should liberate the people of Israel from Egypt?"  All of his youthful ambition, that championing of justice and the rights of the vulnerable, is now spent, buried under sixty years of nomadic shepherding of flocks of sheep!  God, however, will have none of it, for He alone knows that the ember of Moshe's sense of right still glows faintly within him.  So it is that Moshe is summoned, confronted with the memory of oppressed Israel that he carried within him always, and charged with an enormous task. Not only must he accomplish the liberation of Israel from the hands of a cruel and lethal ruler, but also the liberation of himself from an insecurity that is stultifying but safe.  This is because for Moshe to accept God's mission means to embrace the painful process of self-realization and transformation that every true spiritual experience must entail!


And what of Israel, what of us?  Preserved from the bottomless brick pits in spite of Egyptian bondage, like the proverbial box of flimsy reeds that by God's hidden hand saves its contents from oblivion, Israel is soon called to Sinai, drawn by the mysterious beacon smoldering upon its fiery summit.  There God appears to them out of the inferno and charges them with His special mission: "You shall be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation" (19:6).  Israel, though overwhelmed, responds to the awesome moment with ambivalence.  To embrace God's law now is to give up the complacency fostered by decades of slavery to human lords, and to painfully embark upon the indeterminate process of reconstructing the spiritual self.  How many are truly up for the challenge?  Thus, while Israel publicly proclaims its fealty, daring not to verbalize Moshe's earlier doubts, the task of truly answering God's calling will take much more effort.  Is it not reasonable to suggest that the people's later fashioning of the Golden Calf is not so much a throwback to idolatry but rather a coarse expression of their existential struggle to embrace God's charge?


But God will not relent.  Cognizant of their and our inborn reluctance, He nevertheless calls upon us to fulfill our unique and precious personal and collective missions.  As demonstrated at Sinai more than once, there apparently can be no escape from the destiny that continues to guide us.  To embrace our mission may strike us as a frightening prospect, for who knows to where we shall be led?  Fortunately, though, there is another dimension to the encounter, an aspect that has the effect of helping to put our beating hearts at rest, an insight that God offers reluctant Moshe no less than three times during the course of their encounter: "He said: 'I WILL BE WITH YOU…''


Shabbat Shalom 



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