Ealing Jan. 1999
I was delighted to learn that our text was one of the options for today’s Torah reading. I love it, and have not yet gotten to the bottom of why. After all, I am presumably just as rational and skeptical as any 20th (pardon me, 21st) century person in the west. What have we to do with burning bushes, divine voices, revelations about redemption? And yet…and yet…the Hebrew words rise off the page, or out of the scroll, simple, urgent, and fresh as if they were put down yesterday. The landscape is bare: a man, some sheep, a mountain, one bush in a desert. Though we sit in the middle of a city, and in the midst of our complicated and cluttered lives, for a few moments all that is quiet, placed at some immense distance. The language is strong enough to bring us out of our own world into its own.
I mean, of course I am sitting at a desk, staring at a screen. The study is a mess; time is pressing; part of my head runs around like a gerbil in a cage, fretting about work to be done. At the same time, I look at the text, again and again, and none of the rest matters. What matters are those words, and once again trying to figure out how and why they are so loveable.
Well, first of all there is the narrative skill. In a sentence and a half, the scene is there. Through a kind of verbal equivalent of a zoom lens, we’re taken from a panoramic view of the desert right to where Moses is, almost as if we were looking through his eyes. But we’re told what Moses is seeing before he has any idea, which allows us to see, and think about, his process of discovery. ‘An angel of God appeared to him in flaming fire amidst the thornbush. And see, the thornbush was aflame, but the thornbush was not consumed. And Moses said (or more likely, “thought”), I will turn aside and see this great wonder, why the thornbush does not burn up.’ Usually, in the Bible, that phrase, ‘turn aside’ is used when someone turns aside in shame or fear. Here it should probably be translated as ‘turn toward,’ because that is what Moses does. He heads straight for what would normally be a source of terror.
Then, and only then, does God ‘speak.’ I think I’d better stop right here for a moment, and try to say something about what level or kind of reality we’re dealing with. This text has the same kind of ‘reality’ as a great poem or a great novel. That is, it is a work of the imagination. But there is one major difference. This narrative, like all the narratives in the bible, embodies, or points to, or articulates the presence of the Divine in human experience, which remains, for all the words in the bible and in our liturgy, inherently unspeakable, because human language is inadequate to the task. That is why we can never say the true name of God. On the other hand, human language is all we’ve got.
So while what we are reading is true—that is, it tells us something about the way the Divine is present in human experience—it is not literally true. We have to read it, and hear it, and think about it, and interpret it, to see for ourselves what it means and how it means. The text only tells us what ‘happened.’ There is no explanation. What we read usually is: ‘and then, and then, and then.’ The writing is so condensed it is rather like trying to read an intricately cut diamond; the slightest shift and another facet catches the light.
And although it may seem to be a contradiction, while the text is so highly condensed, at the same time it is entirely open, and invites us into a world, this world, our world, where the Divine is somehow ambiguously present. It courts our engagement. It demands interpretation, which is precisely what our people have been doing, for millenia. No matter how remote in time and circumstance the world of the biblical narratives has become, the stories have never lost their grip on us. I mean, they go on living, and we go on loving them.
OK. To go back to where we were, God ‘speaks.’ He calls Moses twice by his name, with a kind of urgent intimacy. This is a form of address we only hear once, or maybe twice more in the whole Tanach. The other, memorable, time is in the Akkeda, when Abraham is about to kill Isaac. Both Moses and Abraham answer Hineni, ‘here I am.’ But while Abraham stands transfixed, Moses ducks. Or to be more precise, he ‘hides his face, because he is afraid to look upon God.’ At the same time, his fear doesn’t appear to prevent him from talking to God directly, and even argumentatively.
This is the beginning of an intimate, stormy, and often funny relationship. Don’t ever let anyone tell you the bible is humourless. You, or they, have only to look at the arguments between God and Moses, especially, say, after the incident of the Golden Calf. Never, in Judaism, is humour incompatible with reverence or even with awe.
But that is by the by. God assigns Moses a monumental task—nothing less than the liberation of his people—at a moment when he, Moses, is not even sure of who his people is. Moses listens, presumably with his face still hidden, presumably still terrified. But whatever condition he’s in, he is somehow able to ask two clear questions, perhaps the most important questions: Who am I, and who are You? And maybe a third question: How can I do what You ask of me? It would not be too much to say that all of Judaism is in those questions. We, each of us and all of us together, are in a relationship with the Divine, so we need to know who we are and Who the Divine is. That relation is based in a covenant, so we need to know what the Divine asks of us. We need to know how, and indeed whether, we can do it.
The answers, we discover from this passage, are simple, but by no means transparent. The only answer Moses gets to his mi anochi, ‘Who am I?’ is ehyeh imach, ‘I am with you,’ or ‘I will be with you,’ or ‘I am present to you.’ That is, you are the one to whom I am present. That is what matters about you, and that is how you will find the strength to do what you have to do. But as for what that means, and how we are to understand it, either for Moses or for ourselves, that is something else. That we go on learning, and forgetting, and learning again, throughout our lives.
The same holds true, only perhaps more so, for the other question: Who are You? Or to put it the way it appears in the text, ma sh’mo, What is His name? The answer to that one is truly astonishing. God describes God’s self as a verb, as a first person form of the verb ‘to be.’ ‘I am that I am’ is a ridiculous translation. The tenses in Hebrew, especially biblical Hebrew, are fluid, continuous, not fixed. So we need something more like ‘I go on being as I go on being.’ Or Martin Buber’s version, which has always felt truest to me (since I’ve known about it anyway): ‘I am and remain and shall always be present as I wish to be present’ That is, I am always with you but you cannot conjure me or command Me. But there again, precisely what that means or how we are to understand is something we struggle with for all of our lives.
Once again, I have no answers, only sometimes a dim and tentative sense of the presence of the Divine in the world. I can’t definitively sort out the passage for you, but only point to it, only try to tell you why I find it loveable, and hope that that is somehow catching, so the text becomes alive in what may be a new way for you, now, here, in your life. I would love for you to go home and read some bit of it fresh, as if you’d never seen it before, and know that you’d begun a whole new adventure.
Rabbi Sheila Shulman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.