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.
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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.
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 (leit atar panui mineih
). This is one of the most fundamental--and radical--claims of the Jewish tradition, one that the Jewishpeople will have to learn and teach the world.
It isthis very insight that Jacob had discovered throughthe revelation of God in that "certain place," namelythat, "God is in this place, but I did not know it"(Genesis 28:16). Now it is Moses' turn to learnJacob's--Israel's--lesson, the fact of God's totalpresence in every place and at all times.
But Judaism is less concerned with theologicalabstractions than with lived religious realities. Sothe Jewish people are entrusted not merely withtelling the world about God's presence, but also, andmore critically, with making it manifest in the world.
Thus, it is not enough simply to state that Godsuffers with those who are in pain. Rather, we areobligated to be present with, and to bring comfort to,those who suffer, and thus to serve as the"manifesters" of God's love in the world.
To tellsomeone who is hurting that God is present in theirpain can be less than helpful; to demonstrate that sheis not alone by doing what God would have us do andloving her as she hurts--this is the deepesttheological testimony we can offer. There can be loveeven in the lowest of places, and even amidst aseemingly endless array of thorns. And where we makethat love real, there we make God present.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the "Sefat Emet,"goes so far as to interpret the exile of the Jewishpeople along these very lines. God disperses theJewish people to the four corners of the earth inorder that we "make visible (she-yevareru
) God'skingdom, which is indeed everywhere." The Sefat Emetis not suggesting that we have to become theologiansor theorists of divine immanence. We have, rather, tomake the truth of God's immanent presence "visible"--through our actions and our presence. The very wordfor exile (galut
), he suggests, is connected to theword for revelation (hitgalut
). We are dispersed sothat we render real the words we pray each day: "God'sglory (presence) fills the universe."
Yehudah Leib makes a similar point in a breathtakingcomment on the very beginning of the Book of Exodus. Chapter 1 begins by listing Jacob's sons by name, eventhough their names were enumerated at length just afew chapters ago (Genesis 46: 8-27). The commentator Rashi suggeststhat this repetition is a sign of divine love: Onmany occasions in the Torah, God compares the childrenof Israel to stars. And just as God calls each starby name (cf. Isaiah 40:26), so also does Godrepeatedly call the children of Israel by name (Rashito Exodus 1:1). If it seems strange for Rashi to linkthe use of names with love, think of the variety ofways in which human beings use first names to suggestintimacy and closeness. God calls the Jewish peopleby name as a sign of God's profound love for them. Notice that God calls them individually, thus makingthe crucial point that God's love is not only for theJewish people as a collective but also for each ofthem individually.
The Sefat Emet takes the metaphor of Jews as starsmuch further. He suggests that the purpose of a Jewis like the purpose of a star--to bring light intothe darkest places of the world. Just as each starhas its own name, each Jew has his own unique light tobring.
God calls us by name so that we light up theworld with the unique capacities and gifts with whichwe are endowed. If the bush suggests that God ispresent in the low places, the stars suggest that wemust be present in the dark places. Wherever there ishuman suffering and degradation, wherever a heart isbroken or a soul abandoned, there are we summoned byGod. This is the calling of the Jewish people--totestify and to demonstrate that love and kindness arepossible even amidst the thorns, even in the heart ofdarkness. Perhaps this is the deepest level of thecovenant between God and the Jewish people--we committo lighting up the darkness together.
If, with Moses, we return to the bush for a moment,we discover another radical truth about God that wemust seek to emulate. God is totally present in themidst of human suffering, and yet God is not consumedin the process. That divine truth is in turn a humanchallenge--to be present without being consumed, tobring love to the darkness without being destroyed inthe process of so doing. Sadly, it is all too easy toerr in one extreme or the other--to be so concernedwith self-preservation that we are never present, orto be so obsessed with the darkness that we areconsumed by it. The Torah does not offer any easysolutions for how to do it, but in the model of God atthe burning bush, the Torah suggests ever-so-subtlythat it is possible to be present without beingdestroyed.
To take the covenant seriously, then, is to travelwith God to the low places, and to travel for God tothe dark places. Not to celebrate or glorify thedark, and not to romanticize it. But to be present toit and in it, and to do what stars do--to bringglimmers of light, and intimations of the divine, evenand especially to the most "Godforsaken" places onearth.