Shemot – Of Burning Bushes and Outstretched Arms

As we begin the second sefer of the Pentateuch, Shemot opens with the tragic story of a people subjugated because of their uniqueness, scapegoated into taking the fall for a overly successful socialist economy. Amid this, their redemption is born in the form of Moshe, a forbidden son of two Jews who ends up in the house of Pharaoh in the care of the leader’s daughter, against all odds. The young Hebrew-turned-prince goes out to see his brethren and is forced to flee after defending a fellow Jew against an Egyptian taskmaster. Moshe runs away to Midian, where he meets his wife and has a son. Then, when out tending to his sheep, the Jewish redeemer encounters a strange phenomenon:

וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל
And he saw and behold, the bush was burning, but was not being consumed (שמות ג:ג)

Moshe goes off to investigate like any good shepherd would, and Hashem calls out for him to remove his shoes before entering the hallowed ground. G-d explains that the time has come to save the Jewish People from the slavery, that He will take them out and bring them to the land of Canaan. Moshe questions his own qualifications to lead his people, and Hashem responds: “כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ- for I will be with you” (ג:יב). Moshe then asks: “וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹקי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם- when I tell them that Hashem, the G-d of their forefathers, has sent me to them, they will ask me what His name is. What should I say to them?” (ג:יג). Hashem responds simply:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה
Hashem said to Moshe: Ehye Asher Ehye (lit. I will be what I will be). (ג:יד)

The Creator of the World, blessed be He, goes by many names. To Avraham alone, He introduced Himself as no less than five different titles. But, this name “אהיה אשר אהיה” is only making its debut now, in the desert of Midian, no less than two thousand years after creation. What is the significance of this name being introduced now?

Ramban answers that this name highlights a special trait of Hashem, His firm and endless support in times of trouble. As Nachmanides writes: “אהיה עמכם בצרה זו ואהיה עמכם בצרות אחרות- I am with you in these difficulties, and I will be with you in other difficulties as well.” However, Ramban adds, this promise is a two-way road, as Hashem requires something from us before He intervenes: “אם פותחין את ידיהם ועושין צדקה אף אני אפתח את ידי- If you open your hand and do good (lit. charity), then I will also open my hand (and save you).” (רמב”ן ג:יג)

After hundreds of painful and difficult years in Egypt, the time had come for the Jewish People to be saved. There was just one final challenge before Hashem would “open his hands” and save them with His “זרוע נטויה, His outstretched arms.” They would need to first open their hands and do tzedaka for Him? What does it mean to do tzedaka for G-d? It means to follow in Avraham’s footsteps and have the same strong faith in Hashem as our forefather did after losing Lot. Right before Hashem offered the ברית בין הבתרים to Avram, he promised the Ivri numerous descendants, as difficult to count as the stars in the sky. Avram had his doubts, being virtually alone in a foreign land with his barren wife and Damascene manservant. Nonetheless, the passuk says: “וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה- Avraham had faith in Hashem and reckoned Him with tzedaka” (בראשית טו:ו), and immediately afterwards, Hashem seals a covenant with Avram promising him the Land of Canaan for his descendants (and, incidentally, foretelling the Egyptian exile; the very one we are reading about now).

What did it mean for the Jewish People in Egypt to open their hands to Hashem in tzedaka? It meant for them to emulate Avraham’s faith and believe in Hashem’s promises no matter how impossible they may seem. This level of emunah led to the promise of Eretz Yisrael at the price of the enslavement in Egypt, and it was necessary to return to this extraordinary faith in order to merit its fulfillment. And, as we will see, just as Avraham’s faith in Hashem immediately led to the ברית בין הבתרים, once the Israelites believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant, incredible miracles began to happen to fulfill this covenant.

I believe that it is no coincidence that Hashem introduces Himself to Moshe in the name of mutual faith and help, from within the burning bush. It is well-known that the symbolism of the “סְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל” reflects Am Yisrael in our most difficult struggles. Even when a fire is trying to destroy us, and we are very vulnerable (made of very dry, flammable wood, like a bush in the desert), we can never be totally destroyed. Why? Because of “אהיה אשר אהיה,” because Hashem is watching over us and He will never let us be gone for good.

What do we need to do to earn this? We must open ourselves up to Him follow in Avraham’s example of “וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה,” and believe that He can and will save us. As the second chapter of Yoel concludes: “וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי בְקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל אָנִי וַאֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם וְאֵין עוֹד וְלֹא יֵבֹשׁוּ עַמִּי לְעוֹלָם- And You will know that I am among Israel, that I am Hashem your G-d, and there is no other besides me. I will never allow you to be put to shame” (יואל ב:כז). When will Hashem save us from destruction and from shame? Only when we know that He is our G-d, He is among us, there is no other but Him, and that He can and will save us.

In our times, we are a similar crossroads. As we saw last week, Hashem has already set into motion our own unlikely redemption, and the doors are wide open for us to leave our modern-day Egypt and return home, to the land which Avraham was promised in return for his unwavering blind faith in G-d. Moshe approached his brethren with difficult-to-believe stories of burning bushes and divine voices in order to try to free them from slavery- we have seen with our own eyes the miracles that Hashem has done for us here in Eretz Yisrael. Opening ourselves up to Him and doing “tzedaka” for Him is much easier now than it was for Avram and for Egyptian Jewry combined. Nonetheless, all too many of our brethren have remained in the suffering of the exile, subjecting themselves to the burning bush.

We must remember, especially now, that while Hashem will keep His promise to Avraham, Moshe and Yoel and will never ever let the bush be burned completely down, this service comes at a price. We must show Hashem that we are also with Him, and we believe in Him. In Egypt, this meant blindly following an Egyptian-raised Jewish leader into the unknown- now, all it takes is getting on a plane and starting over, an opportunity that our enslaved ancestors would have given everything to have. How can any of us say ‘no’, and tell Hashem that we will not open ourselves to Him, and we don’t believe in Him enough to follow Him to our beautiful, rebuilt and reunited homeland? Why would we stay in the burning bush if we could free ourselves and grab onto G-d’s outstretched arm?

With Hashem’s help, each and every one of us will learn from the faith of our Egyptian-born ancestors and find the courage to free ourselves from our own self-inflicted slavery and exile.