Sefer Bereishit, completed last week, told the story of a family — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This week, with Sefer Shemot, the Torah becomes the story of the Jewish people and the two events that have shaped our identity — the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.
Parshat Shemot is an account of the birth and early life of Moses, and its central event is God’s revelation and call to Moses at the burning bush.
The midrash “Shemot Rabbah” tells the following story:
A certain pagan asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, “Why did the Holy Blessed One choose to speak to Moses from a bush?” He answered, “Had He appeared in a carob tree or a sycamore you would have asked the same question. However, it would be wrong to let you go without a reply, so I will tell you why it was a bush — to teach you that no place is devoid of God’s presence, not even a lowly thorn bush.”
Perhaps, but the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, who lived in Poland in the 19th century, once asked several of his hasidim, “Where does God exist?” “Everywhere,” the surprised disciples responded. “No,” the rebbe answered. “God only exists where human beings let Him in.”
As a result, we need to amend Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha’s statement: There is no place that is devoid of the potential for God’s presence.
The Torah tells us that Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law Yitro when he saw an unusual sight — he saw a bush blazing with fire, and yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight, why doesn’t the bush burn up?” The passage continues, “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”
It has been suggested by some commentators that the thorn bush had been burning for quite some time; a number of people had seen it and just kept on walking. What distinguished Moses was that when he saw the burning bush, he recognized it as something unusual, something special, and he stopped what he was doing and turned aside to investigate and to try to understand this strange phenomenon.
It was at this point that God first called to Moses. Moses had opened his eyes and his heart, and in doing so, he let God in. And the rest is history.