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The Burning Bush

12/20/2013 12:20:15 PM

Dec20

Rabbi George Gittleman

This week we begin reading in the book of Exodus which quickly plunges into a drama of epic proportions. I never tire of this story of degradation and redemption and there is one place that I return to over and over again: Moses at the “burning bush”.

moses-and-burning-bushMoses, fugitive Egyptian prince turned shepherd, is grazing his flock in the wilderness when he notices something strange: a bush aflame yet not consumed by the fire. He stops to look more closely and at that moment God calls out from the midst of the bush: “Moses!” “Moses!” “Here I am,” he responds. God tells Moses, “I have heard the cry of the Israelites…” and God is sending Moses to set them free. Moses is incredulous: “Who am I to go before Pharaoh…?” God tries to reassure Moses, saying (no worries), “I will be with you…” Moses then tries another track, asking God’s name; “Who shall I say sent me?” God responds “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh” a name that to this day we do not know how to translate!

letmypeoplegoMoses is rightfully concerned. A bush has just told him to go to the most powerful person in the world and tell him to release the engine of his economy, his work force, and his slaves. Moses responds like all good prophets: saying, in effect, “Send somebody else! I’m not your guy, I’m ‘slow of speech’ and besides, neither my fellow Israelites nor Pharaoh will believe me.” Even so his response is telling. He ultimately wants to know God’s name. Why?

What does it mean to know someone’s name? Think about your own web of relationships. On the periphery there are folks you know, not by name but by their function in your life; the man or woman who does “such and such”. The fact that you don’t know their name is not incidental. In essence, it means you don’t really “know” them, their emotional landscape, their thoughts, feelings, etc. Moving from the periphery towards the center of your life, people are less “nameless” and the names you know them by reflect the level of intimacy you share with them. People you relate to on a first-name basis verses those you know more formally as “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Doctor”, and “Rabbi”, for example. Then there are the people with whom you are most intimate, those whom you may know by a name of endearment, a personal name or nickname that only you use. I call my wife, Laura, “Luv”. As far as I know, no one else addresses her that way.


In the biblical idiom to know God’s name is an act of intimacy, which carries with it knowledge of God’s ultimate nature and even power; for to know God’s name is to be able to invoke God’s presence. The classic example of this is the use of God’s name in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish tradition, on that day, the High Priest would enter the holy of holies and utter God’s name, and God would “swoop down”, as it were, cleansing the people of their sins. Since the Temple’s destruction, we no longer know how to pronounce “The Name” . Many Jews shy away from and even find offensive attempts to pronounce God’s “personal” name. Thus, instead of the common Christian appellation, Yahweh or Jehovah, Jews prefer, Adonai (Lord) or HaShem, which simply means the name.

When Moses asks God’s name, his concern is not so much, “what should I call you”; rather, he is asking “who are you; what are you like; what have you done?” “Who are you that I should leave everything I know and risk my neck for you!” In other words the miracle of the Burning Bush through which God actually speaks is not enough for Moses. For Moses to truly believe in God and act in God’s name he needs to know God.
Moses is desperate to know God but God is not so forthcoming. “And God said to Moses: ‘Eheyeh Ashe Ehehyeh… Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: Eheyeh sent me to you.’” I am who I am? I am who I will be’? We simply don’t know how to translate this name, nor the much more common but equally problematic “Y-H-V-H” which Jews pronounce as “Adonai”.

I can just imagine Moses thinking to himself, “Great(!), I’m supposed to go first to the Israelites and then to the most powerful person in the world and say ‘I am’ or maybe ‘I will be’ sent me!” Moses wants to know God’s name, who God really is; God gives Moses something to take back to the Israelites, but not a real answer. Moses does God’s bidding but he is never satisfied with God’s answer. In fact, later in his career, after the incident of the Golden Calf, he again begs to know God, saying: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” What is God’s response? “You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.”Moses, of course, is us. We want to know “God’s name”.We want to know that there is a reason for our suffering, a purpose to our existence, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Yet that certainty — Truth with a capital “T” – is always beyond our grasp. The best we can hope for is the recognition of the mystery, “the bush that burns yet is not consumed”, and the call of our own conscience to act to make the world a better place. That is as close to knowing God as we will ever get.

Mon, April 6 2020 12 Nisan 5780