By Rabbi Steven Bayar
This is Rabbi Bayar’s most recent post for Rabbis Without Borders-My Jewish Learning. This post was published on January 11, 2015.
There are 54 discreet portions, parshiyot, in the Torah. If we regard them as chapters in a greater whole each portion begins a new episode in the ongoing story of our heritage – with one exception. This week’s portion (Va’era) is a continuation of the endpoint of last week’s portion (Shemot). This week’s portion takes up in the middle of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush.
From Charlton Heston to Steven Spielberg we have witnessed the majesty and mystical experience we associate with God’s direct revelation to Moses. Unfortunately the Hollywood images blind us to what may be the real messages in the text. The Burning Bush presents the paradigm for all future interactions and attitudes toward God and challenges humanity to rise up to the potential with which we were created. It is not so much about experiencing God in life as it is experiencing God in our lives.
A simple reading of the text shows that Moses is not just reluctant to accept God’s charge to free the Israelites from Egypt – he refuses four times. In his refusals he challenges God to become more transparent in dealing with humanity. Moses first asks, “Who am I to do this?” but soon, aggressively continues, “Who are you?” to God.
Despite God’s assurances to the contrary Moses continues, “They won’t believe me.” Finally he says to God, “Please send someone else.” God’s anger hides the fact that Moses actually wins this part of the argument because God sends Aaron to help him.
This foundational text sets the future dynamic between Israel and God: We may follow God’s will and word but not ever blindly. Questioning God is in our spiritual DNA.
The Rabbis view this episode with a mixture of emotions. At one point they ask a pointed question (which is hinted at in Spielberg’s version), “How long was the Burning Bush burning?” Their answer? 400 years — with Moses being the first person to come close to this known supernatural phenomenon. According to the interpretation the bush started burning the second Israel was enslaved in Egypt. This prompts the question, “What would have happened if someone else had turned aside to look at the bush several hundred years before Moses?” Their answer? We would have been freed several hundred years earlier. It took someone to recognize the significance of the bush and turn aside to look for God to take the first step towards freedom.
And these are only two facets of the text: A text that establishes our relationship with God and asserts the potential to greatness in each of us.