By Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
Parshat Shemot contains a story that we know quite well — the famous story of Moses and the Burning Bush. The narrative begins as Moses tends the flock of his father-in-law, Yitro, leads the flock to Chorev, the Mountain of G-d, and — well, we all know what happens next — Moshe looks and sees a bush that is aflame, but is not burning up.
The exact words of Moshe in Torah are, “Asurah Na V’Er’eh et Ha’mar’eh ha’gadol ha’zeh … Madua lo yiv’ar ha’sneh?” “I will turn and I will see this great sight — why is the bush not burning up?”
I know that we have each read this story many times and have seen many artistic renditions of the burning bush. Every time I read this parshah, I think, of course, it is impossible for a bush be on fire and not to be consumed. Wouldn’t everyone notice this and be curious about it?
A Midrash tells us that this very bush had been burning for a long time and, that others, presumably shepherds like Moshe, had passed by the bush, never noticing it. Did these shepherds miss the burning bush because they were working so conscientiously, focusing so carefully on their sheep that they didn’t even lift their eyes?
Or were they looking after their flock with their minds elsewhere — so consumed with their spouses, their children, their health or their homes that they didn’t even process that a bush was in flames but not burning up?
Or perhaps these shepherds did see the fiery bush, much like we might see someone or something in danger, intentionally choosing to pass it by, thinking that they didn’t want to get involved, and that someone else would take care of it?
We’ve all been there — so focused on our task that we block out everything around us, or presumably focused on our task, but really deep in thought around our personal lives, trying to solve this problem or that. And then there are those times when we do notice a serious problem in the world, and we choose to pass it by, rationalizing to ourselves that it is OK not to pay attention because someone else will take care of it.
So, what made Moshe Rabbeynu different from the others who had passed by the burning bush? The words of the Torah give us a clue here. Moses says, “Asurah” — “I will turn and I will see this great sight.” The verb “lasur,” to turn, is used throughout Torah, sometimes meaning turning toward/coming closer, and sometimes meaning turning aside/departing from. In which direction, then, can we assume that Moshe was turning in his statement “Asurah Na V’er’eh”?
The Torah grammar helps us out here. Commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra clarifies that when sur is followed by a word starting with the letter mem, it means “turn from,” and when the word el (to) or a word with the letter lamed follows the verb sur, it means “turn toward,” but our Torah phrase, Asurah Nah V’er’eh, has neither the mem nor the lamed following sur! Ibn Ezra then explains that Moses’ words “Asurah Na” imply that Moshe wanted to do both — to turn aside from his original spot in order to turn toward the burning bush.
In his turning, Moshe demonstrates kavanah, intentionality and mindfulness. He stops, notices that the bush is not burning up, and then chooses to turn to approach this amazing sight. Moses was drawn to the bush and felt that it merited his time and attention. He was willing to step out of his regular routine of shepherding, putting himself in harm’s way to approach a bush engulfed in flames.
So, who are we in this story?
Are we the shepherds who pass by the burning bushes in our lives hundreds of times — too busy to notice, too preoccupied to engage, too self-absorbed to turn toward that which needs our attention? Or are we like Moses, noticing what is around us, observing what is unusual and what is calling for our attention, willing to step out of the everyday to notice what G-d might be asking us to do?
When we notice godly moments and opportunities in our lives, we can choose to turn toward them, answering with a full heart and with full presence, as Moshe did, Hineini, here I am, G-d. Hineini — I am here, present, awake, available, ready to turn my full attention to that which is before me that needs to be done in the world.
May we be blessed to be awake and aware like Moshe, to notice the moments in our lives when we are called to pay attention, to turn and to respond, moments in which we can be leaders and partners with G-d.
Let us answer Hineini when we are called, so that we, like Moshe, might turn to stand on holy ground, to notice, to act and to make change in the world, especially now in this new year of 2021.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan is the rabbi and founder of Or Zarua, a co-constructed Jewish community on the Philadelphia Main Line. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.