And the bush was not consumed – Parashat Shemot 5781

January 8, 2021

This week, something sacred was attacked. In this very unusual of times, after 10 months of enduring a pandemic, and after a very tumultuous election season, we experienced yet another unprecedented event in our country. 

After a long period of shocking events, this still had the power to shock me. I wasn’t surprised by the people who gathered in our nation’s capital to protest the results of the presidential election. I was horrified and shocked by how unprotected the capitol building was, the place where our elected representatives meet, by how easily it could be breached. And I was shocked by how eagerly American citizens would tear apart the space that is the seat of American democracy, a government by and for the people. 

I felt that sacred space had been violated. 

In this week’s parasha, Moses also enters into sacred space. 

We read at the beginning of Exodus, chapter 3:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

An angel of the LORD 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 the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”

And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

The Torah lingers over this moment, when Moses first sees the burning bush. We, the readers, know it is God’s presence in the flames. Moses is first captivated by the sight. He is so struck by it, we even hear his words or his thoughts – I have to turn and look at this amazing thing. 

This sight seems to suspend the laws of nature. Moses is drawn to look by the fragility of it. In a desert climate, I imagine this bush as a dry, brittle thing, something that could easily catch fire and burn. It appears to be delicate, and yet it can withstand the flames. 

Now you might say, we know the fire is supernatural. The Torah told us it was an angel of God! But I wonder, if we can understand it differently.

Perhaps the fire itself is a completely natural phenomenon. That bush really was on fire. What would have happened if Moses simply walked on? Maybe it would have burned to ashes. 

The Torah tells us though that he stops and notices. He notices it and looks with intention. He says I have to turn and look at it more closely;  he expresses curiosity about it, asking, why doesn’t it burn up?  

And it is then, the moment when God sees that Moses has turned aside and is fully engaged with understanding this bush, that God calls out to him. God then tells him to keep his distance, to remove his sandals, because the place where he is standing is holy ground. 

As was illustrated again so vividly this week, our country, our democracy, the institutions that we depend on, are so fragile. They can be consumed so easily. We have been made aware of this fact, over and over again, particularly over the course of this very difficult year. 

If we ignore them, if we are disengaged, they can easily go up in flames. 

It is our responsibility to take notice. Like Moses, when he sees the bush aflame, to turn aside and really look, to seek to understand. It is only then that God’s presence is revealed and I would argue, that the bush is able to withstand the heat. 

Our engagement, and our commitment to be present, and to remain engaged are what will give our country the strength it needs to continue on. And in fact, despite all of the challenges we have endured, our people and our country have shown our resilience. I was encouraged and inspired by our representatives and senators, who after undergoing a frightening experience on Wednesday afternoon and evening, reconvened and finished their task of certifying the results of the election. That took courage and strength. And it took courage for those who had sought to stop the certification to publicly say that they were wrong and to change course. 

I was  horrified to see the depths that some in our country could come to, but I was so proud to be an American, and proud of our country, when I learned of the commitment, resilience, and courage of our elected officials. 

We have something worth saving. And even at the point when it seemed that it could all be consumed, we have what it takes to withstand the fire. 

God is waiting for us to turn and look. And when we do, we reveal the divine presence and understand that we, too, are standing on holy ground.