Monday, January 08, 2007

Some Parshat Shmot Thoughts

Was it a fluke that in the midst of shepherding, Moshe is summoned by G-d to be the shepherd of Israel? Moshe was a shepherd, so were Dovid and Yoseif, as well as other Jewish leaders. Why? Patience and compassion are endemic to that field. The Medrash that I learned as a kid stays embedded in my head; Moshe ran after one sheep that ran away. When he realized that it was thirsty and ran to water he considers how tired it must feel and carries it home.

Contemplation and thoughtfulness are also part of being a shepherd. This reminds me of the comic strip Motley's Crew which once had a kid graduate college with a philosophy degree. Much to his father's dismay he becomes a
shepherd. In the pasture he's thinking: "Here I am at one with nature, alone with his creatures, at peace with the universe." Then you see the sheep thinking, "How come we always get stuck with the philosophy majors?"

But the stereotype of a dreamy spiritual nomad tending sheep is not sufficient to grasp our holy shepherds. Dovid was a king, while Yosef served as king being ABC (all but coronated), and Moshe was the head of the Jewish people without being called king. When we think of shepherds and then think of kings we usually have to pause in between. There is a great difference between the persona, and thus the temperment, of shepherds and of kings. But our great leaders had the introspective side of the shepherd, while also having the selfless side of the king. These are two traits that seem to be opposite of one another, but which can dwell harmoniously within a man truly devoted to G-d.


Moshe sees the burning bush. He turns. It is unclear where or why he turns. The translation for the word employed here actually means to turn aside. Pardes Yosef suggests that he moved further back to see the mountain and the scene atop it with better perspective. Perspective can sometimes come only with standing back.

Or, he suggests a very novel idea,there are certain plants that have a kind of coating that can naturally burn on the outside without the inside getting affected. So he stepped back to ascertain if this was a natural phenomenon, because it was that type of plant.


Rav Hirsch, as often is so, offers a peshat which sounds novel. He says that it can't mean the the bush was burning, but wasn't consumed. Many people understand it this way and view the sneh as a metaphor for the Jewish People, very burned and all but consumed, but never consumed. As beautiful as this approach is, Rav Hirsch chooses another way which is actually the approach of a Medrash Rabba.

Rav Hirsch points out that the words tell us that the fire burned in the middle of the bush and the angel appeared in the middle of the fire. The lesson here is that nothing on earth is devoid of the Shechina, represented by the fact that G-d spoke to Moshe from a lowly thorn bush.

This idea, that as the medrash puts it, "that there is no place devoid of the Shechina, even a sneh", is a major teaching of the Baal Shem Tov. This concept is easily misperceived, as the line must be drawn and the difference understood between G-d's presence being everywhere and (G-d forbid) saying that something has holiness in and of itself as idol worship. I know some people who are very wary of the Chassidic approach largely due to wariness regarding this point.

Pardes Yosef writes that the Vilna Gaon was mistaken in his understanding of the Chassidic approach on this topic. The scary thing is that if in the pursuit of truth and spirituality one shuns this idea of the Shechina being everywhere, in all things, one runs the risk of being left with a dry, technical observance almost devoid of G-d altogether. Many famous phrases and pesukim such as "melo kol ha'aretz kevodo" and "ein ode milvado" indicate the importance of the idea that G-d is everywhere. There's a beautiful story about the Brisker Rav and this idea written up in an elaborate story by Chaim Walder in Our Heroes (pages 171-181).


An additional moral of the scene of the sneh according to Rav Hirsch, is that true spirituality never crushes a person. To fill oneself and one's life with the Divine Presence means always to be uplifted, never destroyed. And Rav Hirsch adds via the medrash that there is one more hint here: "Imo Anochi BeTzarah", even and especially in thorny situations, G-d is with us. (On this last point I refer you to the beautiful Footsteps story, which is written up in many works.


The Kli Yakar makes an observation that might be classified as "sad but true". To the question "Why the thorn bush?, the Kli Yakar responds,"because of the unique quality of a thorn bush to crackle while it burns." He takes this as a metaphor for the Jewish tendency to tattle when the heat is on! It's an interesting point, but I hesitate to come close to judging people in situations I've never been close to being in.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the idea you hinted at in your use of the phrase "ain ode milvado." I generally understood it as "there is no other [god] besides Him." But you seem to be seeing it as "there is nothing else [in the world] besides Him." This second approach, taken to the extreme, is pantheism - where everything is seen as God or as a piece of God. This approach is rarely if ever espoused by Jewish philosophers (in my limited experience; correct me if I'm wrong) likely because it seriously smells of avodah zarah. However, what is found is panentheism, in which everything has a piece of God in it. I've seen Rav Kook in particular cited as embracing this philosophy. Indeed, he often talks about the mundane in this world giving forth Godliness.
Interesting stuff. I've even heard a similar framing of the issue in more rationalistic terms: everything in this world was created by God, and therefore in some way serves a Godly purpose. In this way, everything has some spark of Godliness.

January 19, 2007 at 4:17 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks. It's a tricky line as I mentioned, but I think this is a mainstream Jewish idea.

I believe that Rabbi David Aaron is a big proponent of the approach you mentioned and that he says it in the name of Rav Kook.

In moat traditional Orthodox homes Uncle Moishie is sacrosanct - and he sings Hashem is here, there , and everywhere. But I know some people that won't let there kids listen to or sing that song.

January 20, 2007 at 6:59 PM  

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