Friday, January 13, 2012

Parashat Shemot: Roses and Thorns

Roses and Thorns

Just as this bush produces both thorns and roses, so too does the Jewish people produce those who are tzaddikim and those who are rotten.

Shemot Rabbah

Our sages were very close readers of text.  According to several schools of thought, there is not a single superfluous word or letter in the entire Torah. When something appeared to be superfluous, an opportunity arose to interpret the word or letter in order to learn either an ethical or halachic lesson.  The most famous of such interpreters was Rabbi Akiva who was reported to learn pillars of halachot from a single letter.  Close, careful reading of text can lead to some of the most fascinating lessons and conclusions.  This week’s parashah gives us an excellent example of this approach and, in so doing, teaches a powerful lesson about our people and about ourselves.

During his first Divine encounter, Moses meets God in a secluded place, alone on top of a mountain. There, as we know, God speaks to Moses from a bush that burns but is not consumed.  Moses is curious but does not look directly at the bush:

“ וַיַּרְא ה’ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר “מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה”-וַיֹּאמֶר “הִנֵּנִי

And when God saw that he turned aside, God called out to him from within the bush and said: Moses, Moses.  And Moses said: Here am I.
Shemot 3:4

There are many aspects of the verse that are curious.  For example, why does Moshe refrain from looking directly at the burning bush?  Why does God repeat Moshe’s name?  Why doesn’t Moshe just say, “Yes”? These and other more obvious questions are the subjects of much rabbinic commentary.

The rabbis, however, are particularly intrigued by one word in the verse –“מִתּוֹךְ” meaning “from within” – wondering why the Torah tells us that the Divine voice came from within the bush rather than just saying that it came from the bush.  What can we learn from this apparently extra word in the Torah?  Shemot Rabbah, a collection of midrashim, provides us with a rabbinic flourish of answers:

The bush is full of thorns and when birds fly into it, they get injured slowly by each of the thorns teaching that the era of slavery was one of multitudes of painful strikes.

Because of the way the thorns grow, a person can put their hand in easily and without injury but when they go to pull out their hand, they get cut and caught up in the thorns.  Similarly, our ancestors were generously welcomed into Egypt but when they wanted to leave, the Egyptians bound them up in their thorns.

These are just a few examples of how the rabbis explain the extra word.  Most of the midrashim on this verse fall into two categories: either they refer to Egypt and the pain it causes our ancestors or they refer to the greatness of Israel.  In discussing the nature of the bush that was burning, however, one explanation, provides an interesting, frank and balanced assessment of the Jewish people collectively and individually:  

Just as this bush produces both thorns and roses, so too does the Jewish people produce those who are tzaddikim and those who are rotten.

While we may be “עם אחד בכול הארץ” or singular nation, a light unto the nations or an עם סגולה, we are not completely perfect either as individuals or as a collective.  There are good people, there are lousy people and we all contain both a good and an evil inclination in our souls.  In the Torah, God refers to us as a treasured people but Adonai also refers to us as a stiff-necked people.  What happens, though, when people within a certain group behave in awful, hateful, biased ways?  Do we blame the collective?  Do we shun them?  Or do we give rebuke in a thoughtful and respectful way?  

What about ourselves?  When we make mistakes, it is possible for people to begin to view themselves as wholly rotten or somehow unworthy or good.  Yet, acknowledging only our positive characteristics leads to haughtiness and hubris.  In our daily, individual lives, we have to seek and find balance, to admit to both aspects of our souls, and to work to spend more of our time being tzadikim with the understanding that there will be times when we fall short.  And when members of our community behave in unacceptable ways, we need to call them out for it, to provide loving rebuke while avoiding demonization.

When we acknowledge both aspects of ourselves and our people, we emulate the humility of the bush, the humble shrub into which God puts the Divine Voice and shares it, for the first time, with Moshe who will be God’s partner in leading B’nai Yisrael to salvation and freedom.  Today, the need to lead, the need to partner in bringing about Divine salvation must begin with our own souls.  At the same time, we must work as a People to lead those who decrease God’s presence in the world to realize what true piousness and religiosity is, what true love of Israel and humanity is, to actually live it and not hide behind the trappings of religiosity from habit or from devotion to political ideology.  When we see that, we will know that the days of redemption are truly near.

Shabbat Shalom.

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