Parashat Shemot

By Charles R. Lightner

‘. . . but the bush was not consumed’

Perhaps no single phrase in our history has been so influential as that included by Moses in his formulation of the Shema: ‘Adonai Echad.’ We can trace the development of the basic monotheistic idea in our texts over time in a fairly straightforward way. That there exists only one God, however, does not express the full range of meaning our sages have found in the phrase ‘Adonai Echad.’

The phrase can also be read as describing an attribute of God i.e. oneness or unity. Read alongside Exodus 3:14 ‘And God said to Moses, ‘I Am that I Am’. . .’ it can convey the idea of pure existence or beingness. It also anticipates Isaiah 6:3 ‘The whole earth is filled with His glory.’ That God is both immanent and transcendent is a fundamental concept of our tradition, especially our mystical tradition. If we then read Malachi 3:6, with the author of the Toldot Yaacov Yosef, as: ‘I am God, I do not change’ it is possible to create a proposition that: a) everything is a manifestation of God, b) God does not change, and therefore, c) nothing truly changes.

In other words: ‘. . . but the bush was not consumed.’

What happened to Moses at the burning bush?

First, we are told that ‘an angel appeared to him in a flame of fire.’ Then, ‘he looked and suddenly, the bush was ablaze but the bush was not consumed.’ How was it that the angel appeared to him before he had actually turned to look? Rashi suggests that the messenger may have appeared in ‘the heart of a fire.’ Without doing too much grammatical damage to the commentary we might read this ‘ as does the mystic, Abraham Abulafia – as ‘a heart of fire’ or in other words as an inspiration.

Moses was inspired to turn and to observe the burning bush. The notion of the message being an inspiration is reinforced by the interior monologue that follows: ‘Let me go aside and see this great sight, why does the bush not burn?’ It was only when Moses had acted on his inspiration; only when he had turned and observed, that ‘God called out to him . . .’

What was God’s call? Initially it was only Moses’s name. God said from within the bush, ‘Moses, Moses.’ Why did God need to call his name twice? Did Moses need to be called twice to recognize that it was God Who was calling him, or perhaps even to recognize that he was being called?

Perhaps that moment between the first calling of his name and the second was a moment of further inspiration for Moses; a moment when all else ceased to exist for him; a moment of supreme clarity; a moment of realization of the nature of both God and creation; a realization that would later be expressed in his teaching in Deuteronomy. But what might have triggered this further realization? Could it have been simply the heat of the fire!

Was it literally true that the bush was not consumed or did Moses the shepherd, accustomed to long nights in the cold desert, realize that the physical substance of the bush had become the energy of heat; that it had not been consumed, only transformed.

Did this intuition of the attribute of nature that we know today as The Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy, create in Moses’ consciousness the ability to intuit a similar unity and constancy in the nature of God?

Did this flash of understanding, fragile and tentative as it might have yet been, create in that place such a ‘singularity’ that God called the ground itself holy? Was it the heat of this fire that came to create an understanding in Moses that allowed him to communicate with God in a way that no other could?

Did the first calling of Moses’ name literally stop him in his tracks and reorder his understanding of his world and his God? If so, how can we imagine the second? How might God have called his name after Moses’ world had been so dramatically changed? We might imagine the first as a sharp call to attention and the second as the soft beckoning of an understanding parent.

Whether or not there was this second flash of understanding, this leap from an intuition of nature to an intuition of the nature of God, one thing does seem clear. Moses acted on his initial inspiration before he was called by God, before God identified Himself, before it was said that the ground was holy.

The single prophet standing before a burning thorn bush foreshadows not only the theophany at Sinai but also the response of the people ‘Na’aseh v’nishmah’ ‘ We will do and we will listen.