Frederick Lawrence – Shabbat Sh’mot 5781 D’var Torah

Among the silver linings of this terrible time through which we have been living has been the opportunity to be part of the CBE community since last March.. I am grateful to Rabbi Timoner for allowing me to share some thoughts with you this Shabbat.

The past few days have been particularly momentous here in Washington DC. It was tempting to delete the entire D’var Torah I have been contemplating for today and just talk about the events through which we’ve been living. We live not quite five miles from Capitol Hill and on Wednesday, we could hear sirens all afternoon and evening. But I decided to stay with the Torah that I had planned to share today, which has nothing to do with the events of this past week; or perhaps everything to do with them after all.

I have two of my most important teachers very much in mind today. One, my first and most significant teacher, my late mother, who’s 14th yahrzeit falls tomorrow. The other is my teacher Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. This weeks Sedra, Shemot, contains the very beginning of God’s revelation to Moshe. In a way, the entire balance of the Torah is about that which is revealed to Moshe. One of the best stories I know about revelation I learned from Arnold—so let me begin there.

When Arnold Wolf was a young rabbi, a man looking very agitated once came to him in his study. He said to Rabbi Wolf that he had just seen God. Let’s be honest – we are all thinking what Arnold thought at that moment: this person was crazy. But then he thought that if indeed he thought that he had seen God, what should he do other than come see his Rabbi. Arnold had a split second to decide what to say — “what did He look like?” “what did She say?” But then it came to him, the exact right thing to say. He asked, “how did it change you?” As Arnold taught, “no transformation, no revelation.”

There are at least three great transformations that take place in our sedra, each inspiring us in a different way. The last of these three will be Moshe’s moment of revelation at the burning bush.

The first is the transformation from everyday person to hero — and the heroes I have in mind are the Hebrew Midwives. The text tells us their names were Shifra and Puah, but Rashi tells us they were Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’s mother and sister. We learn of the midwives right after the ascension to the throne of a new pharaoh, the one who “knew not Joseph.” His first order of business is to set up task masters, and create the institution of slavery. And at that moment, he speaks directly to the midwives העברית למילדות מצרים מלך ויאמר He instructs them, as we know, to kill all the male children.

They must’ve been terrified. Hauled into an ancient version of the Oval Office and confronted by the most powerful man in the world. From what we can tell from the text, they did not respond at all. But, as they feared God, they saved the baby boys. And when Pharaoh calls them back and again directly addresses them asking “why have you done this thing,” they make up a story about the Hebrew women delivering too fast, before they can even get there. To the king of all Egypt they said this. A simple, quiet act of extraordinary bravery, of extraordinary courage.
We too are living in a time when ordinary people with everyday jobs have become heroic. They are the front-line care givers, they are the ones who deliver packages, including essentials like food and medicine. And yes, they are the ones with titles, some of which we never knew existed before, like County Election Commissioner, some of whom were summoned to the actual Oval Office. In our time, ordinary people confronting extraordinary challenges became heroic. They were transformed.

They are transformed just the way our midwives were transformed. And how are the midwives rewarded?
בתים להם ויעש — God made them houses. What kind of houses? Rashi tells us that it does not mean houses like the kind you live in, but house as in Bait Yisrael, the house of Israel. Or more specifically, the houses of the priesthood and the house of royalty. Yoheved is not only the mother of Moshe and Miriam but also the mother of Aaron the first high priest and thus she is the matriarch of all priests. Miriam, according to the Midrash, is the ancestor of King David and thus is matriarch of the line that leads throughout time to the Messiah. Very high rewards indeed.

Rewards for acts of heroism under circumstances that were not sought but, once upon them, required them to do nothing more, although certainly nothing less, than the right thing.

The second moment of transformation involves not a single person but the entire people. This is the moment of transformation upon which the entire story of the Exodus hinges. It is the predicate for God’s remembering the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The moment at which God decides to enter (or re-enter) history.

We read in verse 24 of chapter 2: “and God heard their groaning and God remembered God’s covenant.” We know this verse very well from the Passover Haggadah. What caused the people to begin the kind of groaning that reached all the way up to God? Have they not been enslaved already for a great length of time? The answer comes from the prior verse, verse 23. We learn there that “it came to pass that the king of Egypt died. And the children of Israel sighed
by reason of their bondage and they cried, and their cry came up to God by reason of the bondage.”

Nineteenth century German Torah commentator Shimshon Raphael Hirsch teaches a powerful lesson from these verses. As long as the pharaoh who had instituted slavery was alive, slavery was bearable; an evil to be sure, but a bearable evil. How is that possible? Hirsch says that:

As long as the initiators of an oppressive state project of such vast proportions as the enslavement of an entire free race are still alive, there is hope for an awakening of conscience and for the abolition of the injustice. But once an institution, no matter how glaring the injustice they gave rise to it, has passed, along with the power of the state, into the hands of new authorities who were not aware of its origins and who accept it as a traditional, legitimate prerogative of the state, the new government will not consider itself authorized to tamper with time-honored tradition. It will presume that all the institutions of the former regime have been sanctioned by the law of the land.

Evil known to be evil can be resisted. Evil normalized is the greatest risk of all. And so the greatest act of resistance sometimes can be this sheer assertion that what is taking place is not normal, is not acceptable. It is not to be accepted as traditional and it most certainly is not legitimate. It is precisely at the moment of evil passing into the realm of the normal, that our ancestors cried out in a deeper way. This is the cry that was heard by God. When God hear that cry, God knows that the people are ready for freedom — and with that, the covenant with the ancestors is reclaimed. The people have been transformed – changed forever.

After the midwives resisting an order to commit murder, and after the enslaved Hebrews learn to resist the horrific institution of slavery, our third and final transformation is a quieter one. It involves only one person, Moses, and it takes place at the far reaches of the wilderness. We read in verse 1 of chapter 3 that Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law and he brought the flock “To the furthest end of the wilderness.” And he came to har ha-Elohim, the mountain of God, that is Mount Horeb. This is of course the same place to which he will return with the entire people for the giving of the Torah at Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai.

We know the story well, maybe too well. The angel appears to Moses in a flame of fire in the midst of a bush. The bush burns, and yet is not consumed. And Moses famously says, “I will turn aside now and see this great site, why this bush is not burned up.” It is at that point, when God saw that Moshe turned to see the bush, that God called out to him in a cadence that we know so well from other prophetic call stories: הנני ויאמר משה משה ויאמר

That’s it. That’s the beginning of it all. The call to Moses, that will lead to the exodus from Egypt, that will lead to the receiving of the Torah, that will lead to the promised land, that will lead to all of Jewish history and to some extent world history. So what happened in that moment at the burning bush on which everything seems to turn?
Nehama Leibowitz, whose greatest genius perhaps is in asking an unexpected question, asks why a thorn bush and not a more exalted tree? She brings several midrashim to bear on this story, all of which help us see that what is happening is not just a natural spectacle, but a Divine curriculum for Moshe — an encounter to produce a transformation.

She cites the Mekhilta of R. Shimon bar Yohai that a thorn bush is easy to get into but difficult to emerge from without tears or scars – the work ahead will be hard; she cites Rashi for the lesson that God will be with us especially when we are in trouble – we will not go through it alone. And perhaps most poignantly, the midrash of R. Yehoshua b. Karba, that the encounter takes place at a lowly thorn bush precisely to teach that there is no place on earth without the Divine presence, not even a thorn bush.

Moshe turned to look at the thorn bush precisely because he is learning that one can encounter the Divine, the Eternal, anywhere, everywhere. How many of us have had this experience during this terrible time through which we are living. How many of us have discovered a new appreciation of a particular place, maybe a place in the park, maybe just a particular plant. We have a dogwood in our back garden that I never fully appreciated – it got me through last spring. Maybe this is what is meant in the prayer we read right after the Bar’chu: “how much Torah unfolds from each new flower.” Or a secular version, Rilke’s confrontation with the ancient sculpture in Archaic Torso of Apollo, leaving him overcome by the realization that “you must change your life.”

For this powerful experience, Moshe was brought alone to Mount Sinai, the place that had been chosen for him to return as the leader of his people for the revelation of the Torah. Or maybe we have it backwards. Maybe this place became the mountain on which the Torah would be revealed precisely because it was the place where Moshe turned aside to see just how much Torah could be revealed from a flower, or in this case, a thorn bush. He allowed it to change him forever.

Har Sinai wasn’t preordained — it wasn’t a singular burning bush. There are burning bushes everywhere. Even in this most challenging of times. Especially in these most challenging of times. The question is: “do we see them?” Because wherever we can see them, that is the place where God speaks to us, and that place becomes another Mount Sinai.
No transformation, no revelation. May we all find ways to be transformed in our times that will permit us to participate in the transformation of our world, a world so dearly in need of repair.