D’var Torah for parashat Shemot

In this week’s Torah portion we re-enter one of my favorite stories, and one of the deepest stories, about Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher Moses. It is also, I believe, a story about each of us.

Moshe is tending sheep in the wilderness when something remarkable happens. An angel of God appears to Moshe in the midst of a burning bush.

According to the late 13th century Kabbalist Bachya ben Asher, there’s a process here of opening of awareness. Moses first sees a bush, then he sees that it’s on fire, then he sees that it’s not consumed. He’s really looking at what’s there — not just filling in the blanks of what he expects to see, which is the way most of us see things most of the time. Moshe, though: he looks deeper into the bush which burns, and then he’s able to hear the voice of God.

Take off your shoes, God tells Moshe — the Torah tells us — for you stand on holy ground. In the Hasidic understanding, this isn’t a literal instruction about footwear so much as an instruction about removing whatever impediments are keeping us from encountering holiness. Remove your habitual ways of seeing so that you can witness the miracle before your eyes. Remove whatever is keeping you distant from God.

This is going to sound like a digression, but I promise you it isn’t. Every morning, in the blessings for the miracles of each day, we say the blessing Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, poke’ach ivrim — Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind. And then later, we say Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, ha-mevir shena m’einai u’tnumah me-afapai — who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids.

Why, the sages ask, do we bless God Who opens our eyes and only afterward bless God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? And our sages answer: it’s because falling asleep can always happen. And waking, too. The film that covers our eyes — sometimes we’re not even aware that it’s there. This isn’t, in other words, about literal sleep or literal blindness.

Moshe looks at the burning bush and he sees that it’s a miracle because his eyes are truly open. We, too, stand in front of the burning bush. It still burns. It’s up to us to practice opening our eyes, on every level, so that we can see all of the miracles which are right in front of us. So often, we go through our days spiritually asleep: our eyes may be open, but we’re so caught up in our anxieties or frustrations or distractions that we don’t notice God’s fire right in front of us.

At the bush, Moshe says: You’re giving me a mission, but who shall I say sent me? And God says, tell them that you were sent by the God of your ancestors; tell them that Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh sent you.

Many of you know that the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God which we can spell but not pronounce — Yud / Heh / Vav / Heh — is often understood as a mysterious form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” It seems to mean something like Was and Is and Will Be, all at the same time. And sure enough, God’s name here is given as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming. God says, tell them that I Who Am Becoming sent you.

We are made in the divine image. Like God, we are always becoming. And we don’t know who we will become. In Stanley Kunitz’s words, in his beautiful poem The Layers:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The fact that we are always changing is part of what makes us like God. God isn’t static, unchanging, always the same. On the contrary — God is constant transformation. God is the force for transformation in our lives.

An invitation. To notice the miracles around you. To notice the bush as it still burns on. To remove whatever stands in the way of your encounter with God. To remember that, like God, we are always becoming — and like Moshe, we are always confronted with radical new possibilities, if only we will open our eyes.

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