Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of December 15-21, 2013

“Moses’s Vision of G-d”

By Dr. Marvin A. Sweeney, AJRCA Professor of Tanak


Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1 is the first Parashah of the Book of Exodus.  It introduces us to the narrative concerning G-d’s deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage.  It also introduces us to the character of Moses ben Amram, the Levite whom G-d chose to lead the people out from Egypt into the wilderness and on to the land of Israel.  Moses also serves as G-d’s agent for the revelation of divine Torah at Sinai.

The burning bush episode in Exodus 3:1-4:17 is a key scene in the parashah insofar as it presents Moses’s vision of G-d, including the revelation of the Divine Name.  Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, on Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai in the Torah, when he saw a sight that demanded his attention, an angel of G-d in the midst of a burning bush that is not consumed.  When Moses stops to look, G-d calls to him, commissions him to return to Egypt to lead the people out from Egyptian bondage, and ultimately reveals to him the Divine Name.

Modern scholarship recognizes this episode as a classical vision report so frequently associated with prophets and priests in the sanctuaries of ancient Israel and the larger Near East.  In attempting to explain the socio-historical background of the narrative, they point to the Rubus Sanctus or the Cassia Sene, two types of thorny bushes that are native to the Sinai Wilderness as the possible explanation for the Moses’s vision.  These bushes are known for their red flowers in the spring that make the bushes appear to be aflame when viewed from a distance.  The bush becomes one of the features of natural creation that appear throughout the Exodus narrative and point to G-d the Creator who intervenes in human events on behalf of the chosen people of Israel.

But we must recognize that identification of the bush in question hardly suffices to understand this episode.  The narrative portrays a visionary experience that Moses alone sees.  Indeed, the midrashic literature indicates that other shepherds accompanied Moses, but they did not see what he saw.  Elements of the narrative point to the sacred nature of the vision that might take place in the Holy Temple.  G-d tells Moses to remove his shoes from his feet because he is standing on holy ground.  Rabbinic interpretation notes that when G-d self-identifies to Moses, “I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob,” G-d’s statement then becomes the basis for the opening statement of the Amidah.

The Midrashic literature relates that upon seeing Moses’s fear to look upon the Presence of G-d and his anguish over the plight of his people, Israel, G-d determines that Moses is worthy to lead the people.  But how to reveal the divine Presence to a man who is but a beginner in the realm of prophecy and visionary experience?  G-d speaks to Moses in the voice of his father, Amram, to initiate the young Moses into a relationship with G-d and prepare him for a Merkavah ascent through the seven levels of heaven to appear before the throne of G-d.  Here Moses sees Metatron, the angel of the Presence, and all of Heaven and Hell, before receiving the Torah from G-d and learning the secrets of the divine Name, beginning with G-d’s basic assertion, “I will be what I will be.”

Indeed, Moses has a holy vision of the divine.  Had we been there, we would likely have seen only what the other shepherds saw, the Rubus Sanctus or the Cassia Sene.  But Moses sees much more, and herein lies an important lesson for us to learn.  The Holy Presence of G-d is always all around us, but we must be prepared to see it and act upon it.  It is the task of Jews to act as partners with G-d in the work of completing the creation that G-d begins.  It is our job to sanctify and thereby to complete creation, by recognizing the inherent holiness of our world and our lives.  Saturday is not just another day; it is the holy Shabbat and it is only recognized as such when we take the trouble to sanctify it through our own Shabbat observance.  Our food is mundane, until we recognize that eating food provided to us by G-d through creation is a holy act, and that we must sanctify the act of eating by our own observance of kashrut.  Our lives are mundane, until we recognize that we are holy as well and conduct ourselves in keeping with the teachings of justice and holiness as expressed in the Torah.  Then we can become like Moses, recognizing the Presence of G-d in an otherwise mundane world filled with flowering bushes and the like.  And then we can see that “we will be what we will be.”

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