The rabbi as citizen in the midst of world crisis
The Gaza war: so many worlds destroyed

Opening our hearts and our eyes (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the dvar Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah. Enjoy.

This week's Torah portion -- Shemot, the beginning of the book of the same name -- contains a lot of good stories. One of them begins like this:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am."

The most remarkable thing for me, in this snippet of story, is not the sneh, the bush that burned but was not consumed. It's the moment where Moses takes notice of the bush, and says to himself, "hang on, this is incredible, I've got to stop and pay some attention to this." The moment where Moses' eyes are opened, his consciousness expanded, because he's both willing and able to see the wonder that's right in front of him.

There's midrash which suggests Moses wasn't the first person to pass by the burning bush. Others had walked by and ignored it. Maybe they thought they were seeing things. Maybe they assumed it was something other than what it was. Maybe they figured there was some rational explanation for a bush that burned but was not consumed, and anyway they had things to do, sheep to herd and goats to yell at. One way or another, as a result of their distraction they missed the presence of God, the ruach ha-kodesh, manifest in plain sight.

But not Moses. Moses had his eyes open. He noticed, and marveled, and altered his path to get a closer look. He had his priorities straight, and the miracle of an ever-burning bush was enough to get his attention. In this way, Moses took the first step toward relationship with God -- because, as the text tells us, it wasn't until God saw that Moses had turned aside to look that God called out.

God calls to Moses not once, but twice. There are other times in Torah when God calls twice. Both Abraham and Jacob are, at important moments in their journeys, called in this dual way. In both of those cases, as my teacher Reb Marcia pointed out earlier this week, the ta'amim (cantillation marks) show a psik, a break, between one iteration of the name and the other. But in this case -- when God calls "Moshe, Moshe!" -- the cantillation marks are mercha tipcha, a single musical phrase. Something different is meant by this dual naming.

In one interpretation, when God calls twice, God speaks both to the mochin d'katnut ("small mind" or limited consciousness) and to the mochin d'gadlut ("big mind" or expanded consciousness.) Each of us thinks, feels, and perceives on both of these levels: a small level, ego-bound, and a broader level that sees the big picture. When God calls to Moses, there's no psik between the two instances of his name, because there's no psik between his higher and lower selves. He's entirely awake and purely open, and as a result God can speak to him on both levels at once.

The tradition teaches that we will never again know a sage quite like Moses. Even so, I think this small story offers a model to which we can aspire, in our hopes of living up to Moses' example. True, Moses spoke directly with God, and even had a glimpse of God's Presence in a backhanded way. Moses negotiated with the greatest temporal power of his time. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, across the Sea of Reeds, through the desert and into covenant. These are achievements most of us are unlikely to match.

But the precondition for all of those things happening, for all of the amazing work Moses did in the world, was the simple opening of his eyes and heart. His vision was clear enough that he could see what was in front of him, and recognize it for the miracle that it was; his heart was open enough that he could hear God's broadcast on multiple levels, and could respond. These are acts of which we are all capable. These arise out of qualities inherent in us all.

And in emulating these to the best of our ability, we honor Moshe rabbenu (Moses our teacher) -- and we honor the ruach ha-kodesh inherent in the sneh, in creation, in every ordinary miracle that waits for us to open our eyes and take notice of what is, and of who we can become.