Thoughts on parashat Shemot. 

Our people in our homeland are suffering. More than half a million Israelis have been displaced since October 7th, being forced to abandon their homes and live in hotels across the country. Some of them were able to return to their homes, some of them are still displaced. Besides more than 1200 innocent civilians murdered in cold blood on that very day, already 509 Israeli soldiers, officers and reservists have been killed in the war with Hamas. All of that means suffering of many many more people. The war, with a possible threat of escalation on the northern front as well, affects everyone who lives in the country. 

Nobody really knows how long this war will last; our people are exhausted and the lack of a visible end to the warfare doesn’t help. Neither does our historical experience of suffering or  being regularly displaced. We can actually say that our entire history revolves around us being displaced, with an important caveat: we have never completely submitted to them and never accepted our displacement from our land, Eretz Israel.

Our Torah portion for this week talks about displacement too: about Moses’ exile in the land of Midian which comes to an end after some time. The end of his displacement is announced by God Himself in a direct message to Moses and it sounds like good news: 

יהוה said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who sought to kill you are dead.” So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God with him. (Exodus 4:19-20)

Thus, without a moment of hesitation, Moses takes his family and goes back to Egypt. Without hesitation because Moses already knows God and knows who God is. God revealed Himself to Moses, at first in a burning bush:

A messenger of יהוה appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When יהוה saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:2-4) 

During the entire interaction with Moses and his initiation into prophetic mission, God reveals to him His name and an important part of the essence of His nature: 

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers’ [house] has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” (“I Will Be What I Will Be”) continuing, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh” (“I Will Be.”) sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

It’s a pivotal moment because it is our affiliation with the One who calls himself “Ehye”, who calls himself ‘I will be”, that makes us an eternal nation. It is our observance of the Torah, of the Eternal law given to us by an Eternal God that makes it real and reinforces it. Without this affiliation, both in terms of faith and religious practice, we would most probably have disappeared at some point in the course of human history. Without our affiliation with the Eternal, the plan of the Roman emperor, Hadrian, to eliminate us from world history through forced dispersion and by erasing the memory of our ancient past would likely have been successful. But it wasn’t! Instead, the Roman Empire is gone and we are still here! The same happened to many of those who wanted to destroy us throughout history, starting from ancient Cannanite tribes who were hostile to us, through Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, the Roman Empire and the Nazi Germany – they are all gone and we are still here! The same will happen with Hamas and all our other enemies. We are the only people and the only country in the world that have the same name, speak basically the same language, have the same religion – obviously with some modifications – and live in the same land as we did 3000 years ago. We have obviously evolved but our ancestral and cultural continuity is unbroken. We didn’t allow other cultures or religions to ‘colonize’ us. It’s a miracle. Am Israel Chai! 

It is no coincidence that God revealed Himself to Moses from a burning bush. What may be the meaning of it? Over the centuries our rabbis have come up with quite a few interpretations of this story. Let me introduce one of those concepts – the one of Rabbeinu Bachya . The 14th century Spanish Bible commentator saw the burning bush as a revelation that our nation, despite its hardships, is eternal: “The burning bush conjures up the image of a lowly nation in iron fetters, constantly aflame with suffering. Threatened on all sides, yet worthy of relief, the Jewish people continue to endure miraculously among their enemies.” A very similar, if not the same interpretation is found in Midrash Shemot Rabbah, regarding the Egyptian Exile: “Just as the bush burns but is not consumed, so too, Egypt cannot destroy the Jewish people.”

Yes, we are THE BURNING BUSH, we are its burning branches. The flame that burns within us but does not burn us is the Divine flame. Carrying this Divine flame is a source of light in our lives – a source of wisdom that helps us survive the bad times and thrive in good times. But the same Divine flame also enables our suffering because it puts us in a position of those who fight for the truth and justice that bring good to the world filled with falsehoods, injustice which help evil to thrive. When you look at the core of the flame you see that the inside is bright and relatively stable. It is the ‘borders’, the ‘outskirts’ of the flame that are the most unstable – and that’s where the greatest amount of suffering happens – on the front line, among those who are devoted to keep our communities safe. Without them we would all be unsafe and completely uncertain about our future. Thus we, Jewish people, need to be extremely grateful for those who defend our homeland, because they are on the front line, risking and sacrificing their lives. We, the Jews of Diaspora need to be also grateful for the State of Israel, which as a whole is our ‘frontline’ and the pillar of our existence, as important as our whole tradition and its wisdom. 

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Mirski

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