Tuesday, 17 Jan 2017

Written by Kath Vardi

A few months ago, I started to run. To say it’s been challenging is putting it mildly. There have been times when the last thing I have wanted to do is lace up my shoes and leave the house, and there have been others when I’ve been eager to get outside only to find that for the whole run my mind has been screaming at me to just STOP and give it all up as a bad job. Then there have been others when all the pieces have seemed to fit together and it’s been a joy.  But my biggest discovery is that I run better and for longer when I’m not alone. It appears that taking up the challenge alongside someone else spurs me on like nothing else. I have company and someone to share the experience with. We are able to support one another as we pound the pavements, keeping our motivation up, quite possibly because we are anxious not to let the other one down by giving up half way. And along the way I have also come to understand that I can’t go any faster or further than I am ready for. It’s taken a few months to get to a stage where I am not on the verge of collapse five minutes from starting.

And so it is I suppose with learning any new skill or habit. We have to literally learn to walk before we can run – to think that we can somehow skip all the steps in between leads to not just to disillusionment but ultimately to us quitting before we have even really begun. In my case, while I may be motivated and eager to get out and ‘get fit’ my body first needs to catch up, and then not all of it will do so at the same rate. My heart and lungs will become stronger much faster than my tendons and bones for instance – which is what can lead to some painful injuries if I try to step up the pace before all of me is ready.

This idea of easing into something steadily and not rushing through the process is used by the Medieval Spanish biblical commentator Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, also known as Rabbeinu Behaye (1255 -1340). Commenting on God’s appearance to Moses at the Burning Bush, he writes that God reveals Himself to Moses slowly. God does not make the mistake of wanting to reach the finishing line too early, but instead understands that Moses needs to be eased into this experience of talking with the Divine. First Moses notices a bush that is burning and seemingly unconsumed by the fire and so decides to turn aside from his path to take a closer look.  It is only once Moses’s curiosity has been piqued and he turns aside to look, that God calls out to him. Bahya comments that this was Moses’ first experience of prophecy and God did not want to overwhelm him. He likens the experience to a person who has been in a dark room and walks suddenly into full sunlight. We are at first blinded and can see very little, if anything. Our eyes need to become accustomed to the new levels of light, we need time to adjust. So too did Moses need time to acquaint himself with the idea that this bush he was wanting to have a look at was far more significant than he had at first imagined. God is careful not to overwhelm him and risk sending Moses running in the opposite direction. Once Moses has turned towards the bush, God then calls out, telling him not to come any nearer until he has removed his shoes, as he is standing on holy ground.

What is Moses to do? He could perhaps have turned around and walked back the way he had come, denying his experience, but, compelled perhaps by his curiosity to take the next step forward, he replies “I am here”. Hineni! I am here and I am ready for whatever will follow.

Moses realises that something significant is about to take place, something that may in fact be life changing but, he is soon to discover, change does not come effortlessly and in fact God is asking him to move right out of his comfort zone. The message that God wants to impart is that Moses has been chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Utterly unprepared for this, Moses begins to protest. What if the Israelites don’t believe that he has spoken with God? Who shall he tell them spoke with him? What if they still don’t believe him? God tries to convince Moses with signs and wonders; he turns his rod into a snake and then back again and then like a magician Moses is told to put his hand into his lap and to pull it out again – it is covered in snowy scales and when he returns it to his lap, the scales disappear. These signs and wonders God explains will convince the Israelites that Moses has indeed been sent by God and yet Moses remains unconvinced, claiming he is slow of tongue, ultimately pleading with God to send someone else. But God having chosen Moses for this task is not easily persuaded otherwise – instead insisting that Moses will go ahead and carry out this Divine instruction, but, He concedes, He will provide a helper, a supporter for Moses in the form of his brother Aaron. Moses will not be expected to undertake this task alone. And maybe this is the message of the story. God needs Moses to execute His plan to free the Israelites and Moses needs Aaron to walk by his side as he undertakes to carry out God’s plan. Neither can accomplish what they need alone. God does not free the Israelites from Egypt immediately and indeed it takes many false starts before Pharaoh ultimately agrees to let them go and it takes even more false starts and difficult journeys following their departure from Egypt before the Israelites finally enter the Promised Land.

To my mind, this is The Story. God needs us. Moses needs Aaron and we need one another, whatever it is we have set out to accomplish. Whether it be a plan to run a marathon, learn a new language, behave in more compassionate and considerate ways with those we meet, to daven more regular or simply to take stock of the wonder in the world that surrounds us, we all require time and patience as we learn this new skill. Learning to do something new, or to approach the world differently is seldom achieved without persistence and commitment, and sharing the journey with another may just be what we need to help us stay the course.

Kath Vardi LBC rabbinic student