Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Walk Article-Shmot

CATCHING FIRE

Shmot-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            In one of the more bizarre scenes from a movie with many bizarre scenes, 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', the Knights who say 'Ni!' demand a shrubbery from King Arthur.  They want an arrangement which is both 'one that looks nice' and is 'not too expensive'.  I feel like I've gotten similar instructions many times.  My horticultural knowledge is very limited.  I can recognize an apple tree when there are actual apples hanging from it.  That's about it.  Therefore I have no idea what constitutes a 'shrubbery'.  Nor do I know what is meant by a sneh in this week's Torah reading.  But this horticultural savvy must be important because both here and in other episodes many rabbinic statements are based upon the nature of different plants and trees in our sacred texts.  Even though I'm botanically challenged our Sages were definitely not.  Their appreciation for nature included a wide knowledge of flora which allowed them to connect with many Biblical messages embedded in the text's choice of plant life.  Let's see what I can glean from some of their observations.

            Our Tanach, especially Psalms, is filled with agricultural allusions, and trees are foremost among them. Besides Moshe's encounter with the sneh, probably the most famous tree reference (out of many) is in the book of Shoftim.  The charismatic leader Yotam, Gidon's son, cries out a parable about his ruthless half brother, Avimelech, who claim's the throne of Israel. This dramatic scene played out above the city of Shechem features many tree species.  In the allegory the crown was offered to the olive tree, then to the fig tree and finally to the grape vine.  None of these noble and productive plants accept the scepter.  However, the atad, probably another name for the sneh (according to the website http://www.sendflowers.co.il/SitePage.aspx?PageID=1183 they are both either the Alexandrian or Tinnevelli Senna) accepts the mantle of power.  Yotam is clearly proclaiming that the thorn bush is the least worthy of trees.  We get the message over there in the book of Judges, but what is the point here in parshat Shmot?

            I think that there are two issues which must be understood in this episode.  First, what is the significance of the angel (and later, God) appearing in this lowly vegetation?  And what's with the burning and not consumed?  The first question has many answers.  In the various Midrashim numerous rabbis asked why God of on high appeared in the lowly thorn bush.  Here is a sampling of suggested answers:  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said the sneh is the hardest plant to escape from no bird enters without being torn to shreds, so, too, the Jews are enslaved in the toughest country. Rabbi Elazar ben Arach said that God could have appeared on mountain peaks or from the highest tree, but this fulfills the verse, 'the lowly of spirit maintain honor (Proverbs 29:23)'. Rabbi Yehoshua said that God wanted to show that the Holy Presence was also suffering with the Jews. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha said that this teaches that there is no place free from the Divine Presence even the lowly sneh.  Rabbi Yosi said that it's because the thorn bush is pure for no idolaters worship it.  Rabbi Elazar said that it teaches that the Jews had sunk to the lowest possible level. Rabbi Pinchas Hacohen said that just as it is easy to put your hand into a thorn bush but it's hard to escape, so, too, Egypt made it easy for the Jews to move there but leaving is difficult. Rabbi Yochanan said that just as the thorn bushes are used to fence in gardens, so, too, the Jews will be the sentinels for the world; and just as the thorn bush produces roses and thorns, so, too, the Jewish nation will produce both righteous and wicked.  Phew!  And that's just the most famous answers.  The list goes on.  Many messages, all of them revolve around the concept that lowliness and humility can camouflage greatness and power.

            But what about the bush burning without being consumed?  Here, again there are many answers, however allow me to concentrate on just two.  The first is obvious, but still must be stated.  This burning bramble which isn't consumed is symbolic of our long and tragic history.  Our nation is always on fire, but with Divine protection we aren't consumed we continue to exist through every hardship.  So much of our national tale is about putting out fires which others intend to destroy us forever.  In this image we have abandoned the idea that tortuous Egypt is a sneh, instead we are a sneh gnarled and oppressed through out history.       

On the other hand, there is another reality which must be addressed.  As individuals we also burn.  Some of us burn with rage.  That fire sadly consumes the individual.  Others burn with jealousy, desire and lust.  That fire also consumes the bearer.  But there is another fire.  There are wonderful people who burn with a Godly fire, which warm all those who come into contact with them.  The holy fire which burns brightly in the bosom of many of our spiritual giants, doesn't consume.  It enhances.  There is a Midrash states that the Gematria (numerical value) of hasneh is one hundred, the years of Moshe, because in this scenario, Moshe is the burning bush.

            Over thirty years ago I had the privilege to learn Torah from Rabbi Zalman Posner, longtime rabbi of Nashville, TN, may he live and be well.  He explained that the great humility of Moshe (Numbers 12:4) is 'discontent, a turning, an urge to growth, a dissatisfaction with one's spiritual status quo.'  Moshe burned with this fire, and merited to convey God's Torah to the world.  Rabbi Posner burns with that fire and affected generations of Jews, with his classes, writings and warmth.

            Each one of us must catch that glow and stoke it into a fire.  But we must never bottle it or hide it.  We must allow the fire of humanity, spiritual growth and Torah to spread.  What a concept!  We can fuel the flame and never be consumed.  We can be part of a chain of beacon fires extending across the centuries and millennia.  The lowly and modest can teach us to be great.  Spread the flame!   

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