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Cultivate the Patience to See Burning Bushes
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!"
Almost all of us know the story of the burning bush. Moses is out tending his father-in-law's flock when he notices an amazing sighta bush that burns but is not consumed. He stops to look at it, and God appears to him from the flame. This is the first time that Moses meets God "face-to-face." God taps Moses as the man to free the Israelites and receive the Ten Commandments, and from there on, it's all history.
But what if the story had gone differently? What if it went something a little bit more like this: Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. He drives the flock into the wilderness and comes to Horeb, the mountain of God. He had always found that place relaxing, although he never thought much about why, and since Moses has a lot on his mind this particular morning, he decides Horeb is, as always, a good place to sort through his thoughts.
Moses thinks through the day ahead. As soon as he has tended to the flock, he needs to rush back to the tent, change into his dress robes, and catch a caravan into the city, because he has a packed day of meetings ahead of him. He is trying to figure out how he can get all his work done in time to get to the gym that night, and still get home before his son Gershom goes to sleep, when his eye catches a marvelous sight! There is a bush all aflame, yet the bush is not being consumed by the fire. Moses says, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?"
Just then his cell phone vibrates. He grabs the phone out of his robe pocket. It is a text message from his friend Nathan, who always seems to know what is going on a few days before anyone else. Moses reads, "Wool futures 2 go up. Don't sell 2day. Call L8r. N8." By the time Moses has read the message, he is well past the bush and has already forgotten about the odd flames. With the phone still in hand, he calls his wife, Zipporah, just to check in.
Five minutes later, when he gets off the phone, he remembers the miraculous burning bush, but it is already well behind him. He thinks of going back but realizes that then he won't have time to stop for a cup of coffee, so he calls the fire department, which sends a crew to put out the fire.
Thus for a short time Moses became a local hero for saving the wilderness from burning down. Meanwhile, God tried the burning bush routine a few more times, but eventually God realized that no one had time to notice the subtle miracle and scribbled a quick note: "Note to Self: Command these people to take a day off every week so they have time to notice my miracles!" Then God switched to e-mail. But unfortunately, everyone thought God's messages were spam, and deleted them. So ends the story of the Israelites. The Bible never progresses past the burning bush scene of Exodus 3:3, well before the freeing of the Israelites from slavery, the parting of the Red Sea, and the awe-inspiring moment on Sinai, culminating with the giving of the Ten Commandments.
The rabbis teach us that the striking part of Moses' behavior in the burning bush story, in its original form, is that he takes the time to notice that the bush is burning but not being consumed. It takes patience to notice that something is on fire but not burning up, because you have to actually sit with it for a while to observe the changes, or lack thereof.
The Bible says, "When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush" (Exodus 3:4), stressing that it is not until God sees that Moses turns aside that God actually speaks, as if this was the actual test. Will Moses notice? Will he take the time to stop and observe this peculiar sight?
Today our lives are so frenetic that, like Moses in the "what-if" version, we rarely have time to catch our breath, let alone be alert for spiritual portals or miracles. One of the reasons many of us love the desert is that when we are surrounded by the vast vistas, the sparse vegetation, and the bold colored rocks, we do have time to stop and notice. Out "there" we are able to remove ourselves from everything that normally demands our attention—e-mail, cell phones, voice mail, laundry, to-do lists, breaking news, not such breaking news, carpools, schedules, figuring out what we should make for dinner, and on and on. Perhaps the spirituality many of us experience outdoors is created by the simple fact that we are less distracted, so we are able to be deeply attentive to what is around us as well as what is inside us.
Throughout the Bible, theophany (God appearing to humans) does not occur just in the wilderness, but it usually does. (*) Perhaps God did try to show up in the towns or cities, but there was so much tumult—people coming and going, merchants hawking their wares, kids playing running games, friends shouting greetings—that no one noticed God.
One message of the burning bush story is that spiritual awareness involves slowing down and waking up to the world around us. I am not suggesting that if we slow down and take time to look, listen, and notice that we will actually meet God face-to-face, because according to Jewish tradition since the end of the prophetic age, God no longer makes direct contact with humanity.
But I believe we still have opportunities to meet the Divine (whatever you believe that to be), because in the wilderness, we connect with That Which Is Greater Than Ourselves (one of my favorite names for God), and we are embraced by a sense of belonging, of oneness, and of peace.
I know that it's not always possible (or even desirable) to relocate to the middle of the desert for a month. For people who live in the city, the closest you might get to the wilderness is an urban park. But even there you can cultivate the patience to see burning bushes and open yourself to spiritual opportunity. One of my favorite "tools" for slowing down, taking notice, and being fully present is a short sensory meditation that can be done anywhere. Let me share with you how it worked on an Adventure Rabbi hike I was leading on the trails above Boulder, Colorado.
A group of forty people had gathered for one of our monthly Sabbath hikes. My task, in two hours, was to give the group a chance to separate from their workweeks, to slow down and catch up with themselves. Ultimately the goal was for them to taste "Sabbath rest."
There was a palpable buzz as we hiked up the trailthe excitement of people who were meeting for the first time and were not sure of what to expect. The steep red rocks ahead of us, jutting skyward above Boulder, had a luminous rosy glow to them, unique to the early-morning hours. The small wildflowers of early spring poked courageously from the still cold ground, and here and there pockets of snow still clung to the rocks. Early morning in Colorado is a glorious time for those who are awake!
As we hiked, I invited the group to try to consciously slow down their minds and shift into their "Sabbath souls," to allow themselves to experience the calmness and grace that surrounded us. As I listened to the talk on the trail, though, I realized that not only was the shift not happening but members of my group were not even noticing much of the natural scenery they were passing. Their workweeks were too entrenching, still demanding thought and attention, and their conversations with others on the trail were too compelling.
I stopped the group at a large rock outcrop, to try to readjust. As they sat down to rest, I read them the burning bush story. They immediately pointed out how hard it is to be like Moses today, to be fully present, to be here and now. Then we discussed how difficult it can be, even here in the outdoors, surrounded by nature, to stop our brain wheels from turning.
Then I introduced one of my favorite mind-focusing exercises, and the group agreed to try it. Each person would focus quietly on either listening or seeing for ten minutes, after which time we would share what we had noticed.
Ten minutes went by, uncomfortably at first and then, all of a sudden, too quickly. When the time was almost over, I slid my backpacker guitar out of my backpack. Quietly, I began to play "Oseh Shalom," a Jewish prayer for peace. Those who had wandered off to sit elsewhere made their way back to the rock, so that we were all sitting in a circle, and gradually the group joined me in song. Forty voices singing together, the ancient Hebrew words linking us together.
"So what did you notice?" I asked my now very chilled-out group.
"I noticed," said Greg, "how loud it was. I mean at first when we stopped talking it was really quiet, but after a while I noticed all these sounds I didn't hear before, and it was really loud."
Kate said, "I hadn't heard a single bird while we hiked. But when I was quiet I heard chickadees, robins, and cardinals and lots of bird sounds I didn't even recognize."
"I didn't realize how close we were to the road," said Steve. "It seemed so far away, but it was much louder than I thought it was."
The people who focused on the sense of sight during their ten minutes joined in.
Mark said, "At first I was disappointed that I had sat on the rock instead of in the meadow where all the flowers are. But after a while I noticed that there are several different lichens growing here, and the greens are all different, and quite beautiful."
"I was really taken by the textures. I was sitting under a ponderosa pine, and the bark falls off in these really cool patterns," said Anita.
David added, "I sat in the meadow and I was amazed at how many different types of grasses there are. I thought it would be just one kind of grass, but really there are quite a few."
Amazingly, we all seemed to share the experience "At first I thought one thing, but after I sat for a while I noticed something else." In order to be like Moses and truly notice what is directly in front of us, we learned that we needed to sit quietly for a while, to observe, and to become fully present.
As we continued up the trail, a feeling of tranquility permeated the group. Conversations shifted, and some people chose to hike silently. At last, most of us were fully present in the experience.
When we reached our destination, a natural sanctuary, we gathered in a circle and joined together in traditional Sabbath prayers. Then, after the last exhalation of sound had drifted over the foothills, we sat in silence for a long time. As I looked around the group, I saw that everyone's faces appeared less strained, and their shoulders had finally relaxed.
And as we hiked down the trail, I heard snippets of conversations: "What a difference it makes when you really slow down and notice what is around you!"
"That was the first time I've ever said a prayer and felt anything."
"I didn't know that Judaism could be so powerful."
"Too bad the congregation can't have their sanctuary up here! It would be so easy to pray!"
I privately gave thanks for this amazing trail, for rocks and flowers, for grasses and birds, for this experience that gave these forty people an opportunity to open their eyes, ears, and souls to the wonder of Creation. Their journey toward cultivating the patience to see burning bushes had begun.
I have repeated this simple yet powerful exercise countless times, seated and walking, outside and indoors. Although I love doing the exercise while hiking, it works indoors as well. I recently tried it with a group inside a sanctuary with wondrous results. What do you notice after gazing at your hand or listening to your own heartbeat for five minutes?
Heightened awareness is the first step toward engaging the spiritual possibility that continually surrounds us. It is accessible to us whether we live in Manhattan or Montana. Cultivate the patience to see burning bushes. You will be amazed at the wonders you discover. When we marvel at the world around us, we prepare to meet the miracles that await us, around most every corner.
Take the First Step, the Sea May Part
As the Israelites were departing defiantly, the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea…
God's best, all-out, no-holds-barred miracle had to be the splitting of the Red Sea. In contrast with the burning bush, there was nothing subtle about this miracle. Just as Pharaoh's army is about to catch up with the Israelites and wipe them off the face of the earth, God parts the sea, allowing the Israelites to escape to the other side. Talk about God showing up at the right time, in the right place! This seaside appearance ranks number one on my list of top-ten miracles.
Do you ever wonder what happened to all the miracles? When I read the stories of the Bible, I sometimes think, "Why were there miracles then and not now? Couldn't God muster a little miracle today—to cure cancer or broker peace for Israel?" As Tevye asked in Fiddler on the Roof, "Would it spoil some big eternal plan?" For thousands of years, other people have read these same Bible stories and they too must have asked, "Why were there miracles then and not now? Has God deserted us? Where is God when we need a miracle?"
Theologians and other people who contemplate these sorts of questions offer us a variety of answers, including these: "The biblical miracles are myths to learn from. They didn't really happen." Or "In order for us to have free will, God can't intervene in our lives." Or "We don't deserve miracles from God. Our faith isn't strong enough."
So, if God doesn't do miracles anymore, why do we spend so much time learning about them? Perhaps there are other lessons embedded in the miracle stories that are still relevant and meaningful today. Let's take a closer look at one of the more well-known miracles of the Bible to see what we can uncover.
Many of us grew up watching Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea each spring when the movie The Ten Commandments was on TV, so you probably remember the story line. After countless bargaining sessions with Moses, Pharaoh finally relented and acquiesced to God's demand: "Let My people go!"
Thus ended four hundred years of enslavement. Moses and his brother Aaron led the 600,000 men out of Egypt, with their women, children, flocks, and herds. Hastily, they set out across desert sands, triumphantly fleeing the taskmasters who had forced them to build Pharaoh's cities of Pithom and Raamses (Exodus 1:11). They were in such a hurry that they didn't even have time to let their bread rise, which is why Jewish people commemorate the exodus from Egypt each spring by eating unleavened bread called matzoh.
But barely a biblical chapter goes by before Pharaoh and his courtiers have a change of heart and wonder, "What is this thing we have done, releasing Israel from our service?" (Exodus 14:5). Pharaoh frantically sends off all his best chariots, along with the rest of his chariots (it really says that in the Bible!) and his horsemen and his warriors to pursue the bedraggled slaves.
The defenseless Israelites, camped down by the shores of the sea, are suddenly trapped between Pharaoh's oncoming army and the relentless waves of the sea. Certain that they are about to be driven into the sea by the oncoming Egyptian army, the people complain bitterly to God, "Why did you take us out of Egypt just to die in the wilderness?" They ask Moses, "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11).
Moses reassures his frightened people, "Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today" (Exodus 14:13).
And then comes the great scene we all know so well. Moses raises his staff high in the air, and then "the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left" (Exodus 14:21-22).
But as the Egyptians gave chase, the waters closed back over them, drowning them, as the Israelites, reveling in their narrow escape, sang praises to God.
Even two thousand years ago the rabbis were concerned that people might erroneously conclude that the lesson this story teaches is that God will always be standing by ready to create miracles to save us. The ancient sages wanted to be sure we knew that although the Israelites had manna in the wilderness (the God-given food that sustained the Israelites during their wilderness trek), God no longer gives out free lunches. To clarify the meaning of the text, the rabbis wrote a Midrash, a text that explains the biblical text.
The rabbis explain that while the Israelites stood on the shore whining and complaining to God, one member of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, jumped into the sea. Only when he had walked in up to his nose and began to drown did God part the water (Michila d'Rabbi Yishmael Be Shalach, mesecta d'vay'hi parasha 5). So perhaps the story should read more like this:
The Israelites, trapped between Pharaoh's oncoming army and the Red Sea, complained bitterly to God and Moses, saying, "Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?" (Exodus 14:11).
When the Israelites began to whine, might God have thought, "Oy! Enough already. All these people do is complain. I just freed them, not even a chapter ago, and they've already forgotten how powerful I am! They doubt that I can get them out of this pickle? I invented the picklekosher dill, sour, half-sour, even gherkins. At least I can count on Moses."
Meanwhile, Moses, having mastered the lesson of the burning bush, is busy observing the scene, noticing all the details, just as he learned. "Hmmm," he says. "There's a big, strong army approaching. Lots of dust, lots of chariots, lots of Pharaoh's men. Not so good. Over there is the cold, deep, and wide sea. Okay, there must be a burning bush around here somewhere that will tell me what to do."
God, listening to Moses, thinks, "It's enough that these Israelites whine all day. Can't Moses just step up to the plate for once and figure this one out? Do I always have to lay out everything for him? I can't be igniting the wilderness brush all the time! Enough is enough. Let them drown. I'll find myself a new people to give the Ten Commandments to."
Then God saw something that changed God's mind. Nachshon ben Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah, was walking away from the crowd, toward the sea. He had listened to the people's disgruntled complaints but did not join in. Instead, he turned away from the tumult and stepped into the water. Nachshon did not wait for Moses to tell him what to do or for God to give directions. He did not need to be reminded of all God had done for the people. Nachshon boldly stepped into the sea, not flinching even as the cold water spread over his sandals. He stepped in farther, the water now up to his ankles, and sank slightly into the sandy-loam bottom. He kept walking, the water rising up to his knees, his waist, and then up to his chest. He walked without hesitation until finally, when the water was at his nostrils and he began to gasp for air, God parted the Red Sea. Thus tradition teaches us that God parted the sea for Nachshon, who had dared to take the first step, and who was convinced that if he reached out to God, God would reach out to him.