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Paying Attention-Dvar Torah Shemot

31/12/18 01:05:34 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

No matter our beliefs or non-beliefs, there are moments in Torah when we encounter clear messages about the interaction of faith, spirituality and everyday holiness. Of course this symbol of spirituality and encounter is found in the Torah as the character of God-for some a deeply strengthening concept, and for others a profoundly problematic one.  

God is described as the guiding parental figure of Genesis, the book which we just completed, or as the law giver of Leviticus, as a warrior.  God is seen as a giver of reward and punishment, or as “kol d’mama dakah” the still lingering small voice which Elijah encounters in the Book of Kings.  The Biblical God however is much more than a simple supernatural being, a concept to easily believe in or disown. It is a instead found through the hundreds of names and the many places in which we encounter this idea, a reminder of how we experience those moments beyond ourselves.  While the Torah doesn't’t shy away from miracles or calls for obedience to God, there are also those important hints that Godliness, that holiness and spirituality, are meant to found within the acts and relationships of our daily lives, not beyond them.

Of all the great theological messages of the Torah to this point, one of the most profoundly simple, and the most humbling, appears in this week's Torah portion.  After being introduced to Moses and hearing the story of his birth, we find the future leader of the Jewish people wandering the fields with his sheep. It is there that he encounters a burning bush.  Noticing that the bush was on fire but “was not consumed,” Moses turns to look, and is told by an angel of God to “not draw near and to take off your shoes because the place you stand is holy soil.” And so the story of Moses, God and the Jewish people begins--with a bush.

There is a Midrash that asks the question why when God could have chosen so many more majestic and impressive ways to appear to Moses, God chose to do so in the form of a humble bush.  In the Talmud, Yehoshua Ben Korcha responds simply that every place in the world is filled with God’s presence, and that we should not question the inherent holiness of a bush, whether it is burning or not (TB Brachot 7a).  Many centuries later the Hasidic movement added a different level of interpretation to this question, as Rabbi Shnuer Zalman of Lyadi said, that everything in the world, especially the most lowly of worldly objects is infused with the divine.  (In many ways this is the core of Hasidic philosophy, that all we experience, from the most enlightening moments to the crumbs of a loaf of bread can be a pathway to experiencing Godliness.)

Yet beyond this, we can be inspired to see the two separate commandments, for Moses to remove his shoes and for him to not approach the bush, as working together as reminders of humility and of the danger of believing that we have found the truth, that there is only belief or non-belief to sustain us.  “Do not come near here" means, even though you may hear the voice of God coming from this bush, don’t think that God exists in the bush.  Don’t say that you have “heard God” and then try to get others to experience the same encounter. Don’t spend the rest of your life after you leave this place searching for more talking bushes, more esoteric visions of a bush that is not consumed.  Instead, take off your shoes--root yourself to the ground to the place you are now. Find blessing, find strength and find your own voice in the moments of daily life.

Take off your shoes, so you can remember to find holiness and connection wherever you stand.   You don’t need a burning bush, and you don’t even need to have a supernatural concept of God to find this sense of meaning and connection.  Stay rooted and strengthened in your own experiences, and walk and live in Godly ways, if not necessarily with God, bringing into the world goodness and compassion in your actions and in your relationships.  

If the vision of a burning bush, a God beyond yourself gives you strength, then hold on to it.  But Godliness, spirituality and life is not necessarily found in the experiences beyond, in the great moments of mystery, but in what is literally beneath your very feet. “Remove your shoes” and get ready for a spiritual search that will fill up the whole of your journey.

And it is in this experience of the burning bush that the unique personality of Moses appears.  If God had appeared as a dazzling light display, or a fiery and thundering mountain--and there will be a time for that--there is no doubt that everyone would have noticed.  Yet, a simple bush in the middle of the desert, even one on fire, is not that unique of a sight and is bound to be overlooked. This uniquely fire-proof bush was a miraculous sight available only to those who truly were paying attention.  To see a bush on fire and walk on past is not that odd, but to look long enough, to have the focus and attention to see that the bush was burning but not burning up, took a special character. This kind of ability to pay attention to each moment and to each individual was the quality of Moses that God needed in the leader of the Jewish people.  

Moses may have gained strength from this powerful encounter at the burning bush, believing in something beyond himself, yet like all of us the sustaining power of spirituality, the practical reality of living a spiritual life comes not from encountering a being beyond ourselves, but from paying attention to the ground beneath our feet. “Take off your shoes”, stop looking for God in a bush or in the heavens, and find it within yourselves and your actions, and like Moses through the work you do in this world.

Rabbi Authur Green, in his Book Radical Judaism, summarizes well the nature of the spiritual encounter, as I see it, the “take off your shoes” experience of living a spiritual connected life:

What is the nature of this experience?  It is as varied as the countless individual human beings in the world and potentially as multifarious as the moments in each of those human lives. In the midst of life, our ordinariness is interrupted. This may take place as we touch one of the edges of life, in a great confrontation with the new life of a child, or out of an approaching death. We may see it in Wonders of Nature, sunrises and sunsets, mountains and oceans. It may happen to us in the course of loving and deeply entering into union with another, or in profound loneliness. Sometimes, however, such a moment of holy and awesome presence comes upon us without any apparent provocation at all. It may come as a deep inner Stillness, quieting all the background noise usually fills our inner chambers, or it may be quite the opposite, a loud rush and excitement that fills us to overflowing. It may seem to come from within or without, or perhaps both at once. The realization of such moment fills us with the sense of magnificence, of smallness, and of the longing, all at once our heart swell up with the love for the world around us and all at its grandeur.

And Green concludes that these moments are available to all of us.  Not just to all of the Moses’ of the world, and not just when we encounter a burning bush:

I believe with complete faith that every human being is capable of such experience, that these moments place us in contact with the elusive Inner Essence of being that I called “God.” Is out of such moments that religion is born, our human response to the dizzying depths of an encounter we cannot and yet so need to name.  (Green, Radical Judaism, pg 5-6)

Our spiritual journeys can often be frustrating, and we may be waiting around for that moment of inspiration or enlightenment that always seems just beyond our reach.  While we all thankfully have moments of greatness in our lives, those moments of “fire”, our prayers, our work, our relationships, sometimes just seem to be moving all too slowing towards their fulfillment.  This can be frustrating, yet like all those who walked past the burning bush, it is all too easy just to move on past the simple holiness that is right in front of us. The essence of Jewish “spirituality” is that we must pay attention to the blessing of the simple moments, and we must keep the greater vision of our lives in front of us.  We must channel this focus to move beyond ourselves, to care for our community and the world.  It all begins when we simply turn and pay attention to what is in front of our eyes, and what is right beneath our feet.

Tue, January 21 2020 24 Tevet 5780