Author's Note on Parshat Shmot
Date: December 29, 2018
21 Tevet 5779
For forty years, Moses worked for his father-in-law Yitro as a shepherd, carefully tending to Yitro’s flocks. Moses was diligent and dedicated. Over time, Moses probably learned the location of all the best watering places and knew where the sheep could graze undisturbed by others and without encroaching on others’ land. His life was fairly predictable. Maybe he had to deal with an occasional wild animal or other minor disturbance. But for the most part, every day was pretty much like the day before.
Then, the day came when he encountered the burning bush. It began pretty much like every other day for the past 40 years. He woke up and went to work taking the sheep out into the wilderness looking for water and grazing land. Then, it happened. He saw a bush that was burning with fire but was not being consumed. Moses turned and said (to himself) “Asura na v’ere et hamare hagadol ha’ze. Let me turn now and see this great sight; why the bush is not being burned.” At that point, G-d spoke out and Moses had his mission; his life and the life of the Jewish world was forever changed.
Most of us don’t experience prophecy in quite the same way. Instead, most of us connect with spirituality and with G-d through prayer. Nevertheless, as Rav Soloveitchik wrote, “the difference between prayer and prophecy … is related not to the substance of the dialogue, but rather to the order in which it is conducted.” In prophecy, G-d talks and man listens; in prayer, man talks and G-d listens. Yet, the dialogue is the same. If that is true, then consider what we can learn from Moses’ encounter at the burning bush that can help us in our search for connection through prayer.
It starts with concentration. If you have seen one of those gas fireplaces with fake logs, you will know that it requires concentration to understand that, although there is fire, nothing is being consumed. When did G-d talk to Moses? Only after Moses turned to look at the great sight. He just stood in one place and focused on his surroundings. His focus was only on what was happening at that moment. Moses could have walked away, figuring it was just some wildfire that would burn itself out. Instead, his concentration evoked a connection.
Next, take your time in prayer. It took Moses 40 years of shepherding before G-d deemed him prepared for his mission. It doesn’t happen overnight. This is a hard thing to do in an era of instant communication. But we cannot run into a synagogue and send G-d a spiritual tweet (or text message) and expect results and a response. We need to take our time and really prepare ourselves properly before, during and after prayer.
Third, we need to make ourselves communicable to G-d. In our Parsha, G-d talked to Moses before Moses talked to G-d. In other words, G-d saw in Moses someone with whom G-d wanted to have a conversation.
Last, remember that you are part of something greater. We need to find our own place but in the context of our past and what has brought us to this point. G-d told Moses two things at first: (1) to take his shoes off and (2) that He was the G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob. In other words, G-d was telling Moses that he was part of a long tradition and covenantal relationship, but he could still stand on his own two feet.
So too we can connect to our past and learn to stand on our own. We just need to look back to a day, some 2500 years before the common era, when a shepherd woke up and went to work just like he had for the past 40 years. Then he saw a burning bush. He could have walked away. Instead, he was prepared. He took three steps forward and changed the world. We each encounter our own tests, our own “burning bush.” We don’t know when or where, but it will happen. When that day comes, will we walk away from it? Or will we be able to draw upon our strength to “turn and look at this great sight”?