2016-06-30
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).

Just as Israel is enslaved and confined, so also is God, as it were, enslaved and confined. The bush, with its injurious thorns, represents Israel's situation--cast low and hurt in manifold ways. The fire in the very heart of the bush represents the presence of God amidst Israel's suffering and humiliation.

Exodus Rabbah, a Midrashic text, makes a similar point. It tells us the burning bush is meant to teach us that "no place is devoid of the divine presence, not even a lowly thornbush." As the emerging leader of the Jewish people, Moses has to know and believe at the very core of his being that there is no place in the world in which 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 Jewish people will have to learn and teach the world.

It is this very insight that Jacob had discovered through the revelation of God in that "certain place," namely that, "God is in this place, but I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16). Now it is Moses' turn to learn Jacob's--Israel's--lesson, the fact of God's total presence in every place and at all times.

But Judaism is less concerned with theological abstractions than with lived religious realities. So the Jewish people are entrusted not merely with telling the world about God's presence, but also, and more critically, with making it manifest in the world.

Thus, it is not enough simply to state that God suffers with those who are in pain. Rather, we are obligated 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 tell someone who is hurting that God is present in their pain can be less than helpful; to demonstrate that she is not alone by doing what God would have us do and loving her as she hurts--this is the deepest theological testimony we can offer. There can be love even in the lowest of places, and even amidst a seemingly endless array of thorns. And where we make that 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 Jewish people along these very lines. God disperses the Jewish people to the four corners of the earth in order that we "make visible (she-yevareru) God's kingdom, which is indeed everywhere." The Sefat Emet is not suggesting that we have to become theologians or theorists of divine immanence. We have, rather, to make the truth of God's immanent presence "visible"-- through our actions and our presence. The very word for exile (galut), he suggests, is connected to the word for revelation (hitgalut). We are dispersed so that we render real the words we pray each day: "God's glory (presence) fills the universe."

Yehudah Leib makes a similar point in a breathtaking comment on the very beginning of the Book of Exodus. Chapter 1 begins by listing Jacob's sons by name, even though their names were enumerated at length just a few chapters ago (Genesis 46: 8-27). The commentator Rashi suggests that this repetition is a sign of divine love: On many occasions in the Torah, God compares the children of Israel to stars. And just as God calls each star by name (cf. Isaiah 40:26), so also does God repeatedly call the children of Israel by name (Rashi to Exodus 1:1). If it seems strange for Rashi to link the use of names with love, think of the variety of ways in which human beings use first names to suggest intimacy and closeness. God calls the Jewish people by name as a sign of God's profound love for them. Notice that God calls them individually, thus making the crucial point that God's love is not only for the Jewish people as a collective but also for each of them individually.

The Sefat Emet takes the metaphor of Jews as stars much further. He suggests that the purpose of a Jew is like the purpose of a star--to bring light into the darkest places of the world. Just as each star has its own name, each Jew has his own unique light to bring.

God calls us by name so that we light up the world with the unique capacities and gifts with which we are endowed. If the bush suggests that God is present in the low places, the stars suggest that we must be present in the dark places. Wherever there is human suffering and degradation, wherever a heart is broken or a soul abandoned, there are we summoned by God. This is the calling of the Jewish people--to testify and to demonstrate that love and kindness are possible even amidst the thorns, even in the heart of darkness. Perhaps this is the deepest level of the covenant between God and the Jewish people--we commit to lighting up the darkness together.

If, with Moses, we return to the bush for a moment, we discover another radical truth about God that we must seek to emulate. God is totally present in the midst of human suffering, and yet God is not consumed in the process. That divine truth is in turn a human challenge--to be present without being consumed, to bring love to the darkness without being destroyed in the process of so doing. Sadly, it is all too easy to err in one extreme or the other--to be so concerned with self-preservation that we are never present, or to be so obsessed with the darkness that we are consumed by it. The Torah does not offer any easy solutions for how to do it, but in the model of God at the burning bush, the Torah suggests ever-so-subtly that it is possible to be present without being destroyed.

To take the covenant seriously, then, is to travel with God to the low places, and to travel for God to the dark places. Not to celebrate or glorify the dark, and not to romanticize it. But to be present to it and in it, and to do what stars do--to bring glimmers of light, and intimations of the divine, even and especially to the most "Godforsaken" places on earth.

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