Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
When God encounters Moses at the burning bush, Moses has had a rough go of it. His entire life he has been surrounded by secrecy and lies. There is nothing Moses can say about himself that is simply true. Everything about him requires qualification. He was born during the decree to kill all baby boys and yet he lived. His mother was not his mother but his nursemaid. He is neither fully Egyptian nor Hebrew. He is not subject to abuse of power but neither is he allowed to wield power freely. In Midian, he is thought to be an Egyptian. Moses names his son “Gershom,” “a stranger there,” reflecting Moses’s secrets. He is a stranger not just in Midian but also in Egypt and among his own people. As we saw in Genesis, progeny was always the solution. The promise to Abraham is fulfilled through progeny and the punishment for Adam of mortality is softened through progeny. But Moses has no past with which to connect his child nor has he a future to imagine onto his child.
It is shortly after the birth of his child that Moses wanders into the desert. He takes Jethro’s sheep and leads them into the wilderness until he comes to Horeb, to Mount Sinai. Lost and confused, he seems to have led his father-in-law’s flock astray. It is yet another act of Moses fleeing, following on his actions as a baby in a basket and then after having killed a person in Egypt. When given a choice of fight or flight, Moses is the exemplar of fleeing. He has nothing to tether him to a place. Even after marriage and the birth of a child, Moses still wanders away.
As it turns out, the Israelite people were in need of exactly such a wanderer. God will take Moses’s scampering away and transform it into the Exodus. However, this transformation must be carried out most delicately. God can’t scare Moses away before they have an opportunity to converse. In an epic demonstration of empathy and healing, God meets Moses at the burning bush.
God lets Moses choose to approach God. Just as Moses had turned this way and that to make sure no one saw him kill an Egyptian, Moses now chooses to turn aside to look at the burning bush. God takes what had been a motion of fear for Moses and transforms it into a motion of awe. God calls Moses’s name twice and Moses answers. He has been identified, it would do no good to flee. But God takes no chances. He has Moses remove his shoes. It is reminiscent of the age-old joke that reads: before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes. God takes away Moses’s ability to run. It is in stark contrast to what God will tell the Israelites on the eve of their departure from Egypt, when God will command the Israelites to eat the paschal lamb “with your hips belted, your sandals on your feet, and your staffs in your hand.” They will be ready to flee with Moses at the vanguard.
God continues speaking to Moses, explaining to Moses who God is. It is too much for Moses, he hides his face. He can’t run away, but he can check out. God pushes on, explaining the mission. It is at this point we hear Moses’s first words to God. He asks, “Who am I?” In order to approach Pharoah, in order to lead the Israelites, Moses needs to come out of hiding. He needs to have a firm grasp on his own identity in order to forge a new identity for the Israelites. God explains that God is with Moses, God gives Moses various signs, and reminds Moses of God’s awesome powers. None of this is enough for Moses. The man who flees is unwilling to return. The hider still has no fixed identity. Finally, God breaks through to him. God presents Moses with his brother. Aaron is waiting for Moses, holding an idea of who Moses is, a home to which Moses can return. In order to heal, to confront his past and imagine a future, Moses does not need God as his helpmate. Rather, he needs to dwell among his own kin. He needs his brother.