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81http://www.beth-israel.org/blog/2012/01/Rabbi-Lyon%27s-Blog---01_27_2012
Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 01_27_2012
01/26/2012 10:39 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
January 27, 2012

 

In the course of my personal study, I discovered a Midrash, a rabbinic interpretation, of a familiar verse that opened my eyes to a new insight. It was “awesome” as our teenagers might say; it was an “aha” moment as we’ve sometimes described it. The burning bush has often captivated my attention; not for its pyrotechnic qualities, but for its unassuming platform for God’s presence. There, of all places, God, who is on high, eternal, and without measure, appeared to Moses in a thorn bush. But, why?

                A familiar Midrash I like to teach and which I included in my book (God of Me, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011), explains that if God could appear there, in a lowly place, then God could appear anywhere (Exodus Rabbah 11:5). It was the rabbis’ use of Midrash that explained why God would choose such a lowly thing from which to appear to Moses. After all, God, being God, could have appeared in more beautiful things like a sycamore tree, as they explained. The question that remained unanswered for me, until I learned about it recently, was, “Why a bush at all?” Aren’t there other humble things from which God could have appeared, like trees and simple places?

                The Midrash that caught my attention explained it as follows: God appeared in the bush, because it was pure (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai I:III). A thorn bush was pure? Indeed. The bush was the only place in nature where pagan gods were not assumed to appear. In the ancient world, gods were said to have appeared in trees and they were worshiped. They were “ashterot”, idols and talisman. The lowly bush was not worshiped. It was pure (tahor). God could appear there and God did.

                The Midrash, unfamiliar to me until recently, awakened me to the idea that God appeared to Moses in a remarkable place not only because it proved God’s omnipresence, but also because it set God apart. And, now, I understand that God appeared in this place because it was unused by other gods in other faiths and untouched by references to other deities. The Midrash satisfied the rabbinic standard that sought purity in life and which upholds God’s sanctity. The rabbis sought purity and sanctity for themselves, too; they assumed that their own purity devolved from God’s. While a bush seems an unlikely place for God to appear, it had to be suitable or God wouldn’t have appeared there. What was remarkably suitable about it? Purity.

                I still derive understanding from the Midrash that God’s appearance there in a lowly bush proves God’s presence everywhere. But, I value this lesson that helps me understand that God’s appearance at the beginning of our people’s redemption from slavery began in a sacred place. We have been taught, “All beginnings are hard”, but they can also be sacred starting points where fresh ideas and clear intentions help us enjoy a sacred journey. Our Israelite ancestors were freed from slavery and found their way to a better place and a life of Torah. When we are unencumbered by doubt or self-defeating tendencies, we can nurture fresh ideas and pure intentions, too. Our sacred beginnings start with faith in ourselves and God’s presence as a source of all that we need to persevere. Moses wasn’t entirely confident at the start, but he didn’t fail in his purpose. Our lives begin with blessing, not sin. What we make of our days can be blessings, too.

                As Shabbat begins, consider: Sacred beginnings can lead to sacred journeys.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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