God's Presence in the Darkest Moments

God's appearance in a burning bush teaches us to be present with and provide comfort to all who suffer.

Dedicated to the Memory of Shira Palmer-Sherman (1980-2000).

This week we begin to read the Book of Exodus. We hear about the oppression of the Israelites under a new Pharaoh who "does not know Joseph" and hence feels no remorse at enslaving, degrading, and even murdering Joseph's people. We are also introduced to Moses, the man God has chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and onto the road to the Promised Land. We hear a great deal about the earliest encounters of Moses with God--Moses' hesitations and protestations, God's encouragement and eventual frustration, and finally God's appointment of Moses' brother Aaron as partner and spokesman in the events of liberation that will soon ensue.

But undoubtedly the most powerful moment in the birth of Moses' relationship with God is the initial one. Moses is tending his father-in-law Jethro's flock in the wilderness, when he comes upon "the mountain of God, Horeb" (Exodus 3:1). What follows is one of the most well-known visions in the Torah: An angel of God appears "in a blazing fire out of a bush," causing Moses to look intently. What he sees startles him--a bush aflame, but not consumed by the fire within it.

In a moment God will speak, introducing Himself to Moses--"I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob"--telling him of the divine plan for the liberation of the Israelites, and informing him of his (unasked for) role therein.

God's words to Moses are clear, but the vision which Moses sees remains opaque. What is the meaning of this desert thornbush, and why is it paradoxically aflame but unconsumed? What does God intend to communicate to Moses (and to us) through this enigmatic vision?

Midrash Tanchuma, a classical Rabbinic commentary, emphasizes that God shows Moses a thornbush, rather than one of any number of larger trees which could have been chosen. The lowly bush is a metaphor for a deep truth about God: God is committed to being with Israel during its time of distress (Psalm 91:15).

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