Shabbat Shemot 5776: what do you see in that bush?

One of the useful things about Torah is that every word of the sacred document has been pored over for so many generations, by so many devoted readers, that the commentaries are legion, and a well-worn path of interpretation lies before us as we in our own day consider what insights our Torah might divulge. As my teacher Byron Sherwin ז״ל used to say to me, “you don’t have to go outside the sources to be a feminist, you just have to keep digging to find what’s already there.” Replace the word “feminist” with any other sense of identity that you have that you may feel is outside the reach of our ancient wells of wisdom and experience, and, well, Dr Sherwin would suggest that the fault we find is in ourselves, not the Torah (or our stars, for that matter).

Every week we gather to read the Torah and to consider ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries upon it. We sometimes struggle with questions of legitimate boundaries; what is a Jewish interpretation? how is it developed? And we tend to privilege the more ancient as the more authoritative. That’s a natural inclination, and it is true that the ancient interpretations have formed the Judaism that we live in; what is less certain, and much more open, is the question of what interpretations we help to create and carry forward to develop th Judaism of the next generation.

Our parashat hashavua (Torah parashah, “section,” of the week) begins the book of Shemot, also called Exodus. In it we have the famous story of the bush that was burned but was not consumed. The New Yorker magazine recently ran a wonderful cartoon which showed Moshe staring at the bush while G-d, behind a nearby tree, says “that’s just a burning bush; I’m over here.” What a brilliant comment on our tendency to get caught up in the images by which we visualize what truth means to us. Religious imagery is always meant as a pass-through, but we focus on what we can see, and forget about the more complicated, mysterious unseen.

That small bush has led to some wonderful interpretations. I offer you three, and urge you to consider if you can come up with a fourth, and in so doing, join us in the interpretive journey which keeps Torah an endless well of living waters for us all:

1. Why did G-d speak to Moshe out of a bush? To teach us that there is no thing that does not have its place, and no person that does not have her/his moment.  (ben Zoma, Shemot Rabbah)

2. The bush represents the Jewish people, and the fire is our many years of suffering. It cannot destroy us. (13th century French Rabbi Hizkiyanu ben Manoah, known as Hizkuni)

3. How long does it take, when looking at a fire, to notice that the wood is not burning? To see miracles takes focus, and time. (11th century Zaragozan scholar Bahya ibn Pakuda)

There are so many more possible interpretations and insights we might find in that small, ever burning bush. It’s not a trivial thing: gaining facility in finding meaningful insights in a Torah passage transfers directly to the rest of your life. What small thing is right in front of you, full of a meeting with Eternity, and your own place in it, that you need to have?

Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing, Iran and Others

Our parashat hashavua, called Re’eh, urges us, “look!”. The Torah relates that Moshe our leader is exhorting our ancestors to take a moment to stop and really see in a deeper sense. That is, he is telling us to realize something essential about our ability to understand the implications of what we see – and how we respond.

This issue of seeing is vitally significant. After all, our salvation depended upon Moshe’s ability to see a burning bush in the wilderness, many years before. As the mystics point out, if Moshe had not stopped long enough to notice that the bush was burning but was not being consumed by the fire, he would not have heard G-d’s call.

If you stop and see something you have never seen before, you are, in that moment, ready to listen for that which you have never heard before.

And if you do not stop, do not see what is really happening, you cannot hear and obey the command set before you. 

Snap judgments based on a quick glance will not get you there. Partially seeing will only give you a garbled, incorrect hearing of what you are called upon to do. And the stakes are as high as can be:

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.

Look, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:

אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.

blessing, if you listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, which I command you today;

וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם.

and curse, if you will not listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, but turn aside from the way you are commanded this day to follow, and go after other gods, which you do not even really know. (Devarim 11.26-28)

Moshe tells us here that we do have the power to choose between blessing and curse, and the way to do so is by seeing carefully, and therefore opening your eyes and ears – and heart – to the possibility of being able to hear accurately, and obey correctly.

It is easier to follow one’s first impression, more comfortable to come to one’s conclusion quickly, to leave the wilderness wandering of indecision. But the Jewish understanding of wisdom is that it is only found in looking again and deeper, staying open to what we have not yet seen – and perhaps has never been seen in the world before.

I do not often share political comments in this religious teaching, but it is also true that I am guided by the mystical insight that All is One – there is no such thing as “just politics” or “just religion”. All our best and highest acts in any sphere of life are simply our human striving to perceive G-d’s will and do it (even if we don’t use that word, debased by so many, and prefer to say “seeking to move with the flow of the universe” or “creating a sense of wholeness with the highest”). But our religious teachings are either true everywhere in our lives or they are not true teachings. 

So with that prelude I offer you this thought: our people, no matter where we live in the world, are always concerned for the fate of our State of Israel. We do not agree on how best American Jews should express their support. Shir Tikvah has stood for respectful dialogue, makhloket l’shem shamayim, when we discuss these things that we care about most. It is because I believe in looking more deeply – and arguing less than listening – and keeping my heart and mind open to learn more, that I am coming out in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as “the Iran deal”). This is why:

– It is easy to quickly see and agree with other Jews that it is too dangerous, without stopping to hear that the sanctions regime is unravelling anyway and if we do not have this deal, we are left with nothing in its place. We cannot go back to the status quo ante.

– It is easy to see the public threats Iran makes against Israel, without hearing the reports (this link from the Jewish Forward) from Iran and elsewhere that describe a much more nuanced reality.

– It is hard to read the entire text of the agreement, and then read Torah and all the commentaries, and then listen to both sides, and consult with your teachers and those who are wise, and finally come to a carefully considered decision. It is much easier to fall back into the Jewish defensive position that the world is against us and no one understands us or cares about us – but it may well be that our best way forward to is thank the President for this good start toward a safer world, and use the opening to push for the kind of cultural contacts and economic connections that will make it easier to pressure the Iran regime in the direction of becoming a good neighbor, or at least a less bad one. We have no proof that isolating a regime works, and if we look, we will see plenty of examples in world history of where it has not worked. Those who do not learn from history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.

I offer you this final thought from Jewish mysticism about the nature of good and evil as we look for the blessing and the curse regarding Iran and so many other significant decisions our government makes on our behalf, and of course, those we ourselves are called upon to make:

When Moshe says Re’eh, “see”, to the people of Israel, he is inviting them to see the true nature of evil – that it is nothing more than a distortion of Divine good. When we see it for what it really is, we have the ability to transform it into the good that it essentially is. 

May it be that our representatives have seen a path toward that which is good, and may we demand of them nothing less than a constant, careful looking, and listening, beyond the surface and the already-known, for the sake of peace in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout our precious, precious world.