“Fire and Light”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D, ’11
Parshat Shemot opens with a list of migrants, the names of the heads of households of the fortunate 70 Israelites who have been given life-saving permission to enter Egypt and therefore survive a world-wide famine.
But survival does not come without complications. As the Israelites thrive in their adopted home, a new Pharaoh becomes concerned that as “The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them,” this immigrant success story has the potential to destroy the Egyptian way of life. And so, Pharaoh proclaims harsh edicts against the Israelites and both Egyptians and Israelites are pushed to increasing awareness of their essential differences.
In this context of Egyptian persecution, the birth, survival and adoption of Moses—the Israelite male child who is taken into Pharaoh’s home and raised as an Egyptian— is a miraculous story of dramatic irony. It foreshadows the episode that lies at the heart of Parshat Shemot, which takes place when the facade of Moses’ life unravels. A dramatic reversal takes place: the boy raised as a princeling in Pharaoh’s palace becomes a fugitive who must grapple with his true identity, an Israelite capable of killing an Egyptian. Now, tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert, Moses truly finds himself in a liminal space, symbolized by the wilderness setting. Removed from Egyptian civilization, surrounded by the spare grandeur of the natural world, Moses is ready to enter a deeper level of consciousness.
Thornbushes are common, unremarkable elements of desert vegetation; their thorns ensure that they serve as living barriers, discouraging humans and animals from penetrating their depths. As Samson Rafael Hirsch points out, samech. nun. hey, the shoresh for senah, the Hebrew word for “thornbush,”—which may mean a species of blackberry—carries the connotations “fend off,” “blinding,” “barren and inhospitable place.” But the off-putting appearance of thornbushes also deceives—the external defenses that repel also protect blossoms and succulent fruit.
In a paradoxical parallel, fire both destroys and purifies. In contrast to human-controlled campfires, desert fires are sparked by natural forces and become chaotic, runaway wildfires. As the Ger Rebbe points out, there is a distinction between the wildness of “fire that burns” and the domesticity of a “fire that gives light.” The fire that emanates from the thornbush growing in holy ground is the latter. The origin of this controlled, bright, attention-getting fire is divine: from its depths, an angel-messenger appears to Moses and G-d calls to him.
“Hineni” is Moses’ response to G-d’s call. This moment of response and revelation kindles Moses’ being and illuminates it with Divine purpose. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in Aurora Leigh, “Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with G-d/ But only he who sees, takes off his shoes/The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries/And daub their natural faces unaware.”
May our lives and our work be illuminated with holy awareness and holy purpose. May we recognize, in the words of Margaret Silf, that “We stand before a burning bush whenever other human beings share with us something of their relationship with God or something of the movements of their hearts. In such moments may we always realize that we stand on holy ground.”