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. Wehear about the oppression of the Israelites under anew Pharaoh who "does not know Joseph" and hence feelsno remorse at enslaving, degrading, and even murderingJoseph's people. We are also introduced to Moses, theman God has chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egyptand onto the road to the Promised Land. We hear agreat deal about the earliest encounters of Moses withGod--Moses' hesitations and protestations, God'sencouragement and eventual frustration, and finallyGod's appointment of Moses' brother Aaron as partnerand spokesman in the events of liberation that willsoon ensue.

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

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

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God's words to Moses are clear, but the vision whichMoses sees remains opaque. What is the meaning ofthis desert thornbush, and why is it paradoxicallyaflame but unconsumed? What does God intend tocommunicate to Moses (and to us) through thisenigmatic vision?

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

Just as Israel is enslaved and confined, so also isGod, as it were, enslaved and confined. The bush, withits injurious thorns, represents Israel'ssituation--cast low and hurt in manifold ways. Thefire in the very heart of the bush representsthe presence of God amidst Israel's suffering andhumiliation.

Exodus Rabbah, a Midrashic text, makes a similar point. It tells us the burning bush is meant to teach us that "no placeis devoid of the divine presence, not even a lowlythornbush." As the emerging leader of the Jewishpeople, Moses has to know and believe at the very coreof his being that there is no place in the world inwhich God is not present (

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