Shabbat Shalom Everyone!

I am very honored to be able to give today’s drash – especially on a juicy Torah portion like Shemot. In today’s portion we span from the suffering of the Jews under the new Pharaoh,  the early life of Moses, the death of a Pharaoh, the revelation of God to Moses, and the beginning of Moses going into Mitzrayim to ask for the freedom of his people. I was particularly struck by the revelation of God to Moses.

Let’s go ahead and read it together starting at Shemot 2 verse 24. The Pharaoh, who enslaved the Jews and ordered the mass killing of Hebrew Children, has died. The Jews are calling out for relief from their suffering:

Etz Chayim Chumash

2:24   G O D heard their moaning, and G O D remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G O D  looked upon the Israelites, and G O D took notice of them.
3:1 Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of 
Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Hored, the mountain
of G O D. An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a
bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not
consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; 
why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the LORD saw the he had turned aside to 
look, G O D called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, 
“Here I am.”


The word that jumps out at me the most in this portion is vayar (seeing or saw – from the root ra’ah).  If we look at the Fox translation of the Torah, which Rabbi has said is a more “straight” translation of the words, the repetition of “see” becomes more apparent:


2: 24
G O D hearkened to their moaning,
G O D called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and Yaakov,
G O D saw the Children of Israel,
G O D knew.
Now Moshe was shepherding the flock of Yitro his father-in-law,
priest of Midyan
He led the flock behind the wilderness -
and he came to the mountain of G O D, to Horev.
2: And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him
in the flame of a fire out of the midst of a bush.
He saw:
here, the bush is burning with fire,
and the bush is not consumed!
3: Moshe said:
Now let me turn aside
that I may see this great sight --
why the bush does not burn up!
4: When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see,
G O D called to him out of the midst of the bush,
he said:
Moshe! Moshe!
He said:
Here I am.


I counted See and Saw 22 times in Shemot (I am not skilled enough in Hebrew to find all the other forms of ra’ah so I didn’t count those). While the amount of time this appears seem remarkable to me, I was taken in by the ordering of the words, especially around the burning bush. Remember our Rabbi’s statement that every word counts in the Torah – if something is repeated it is not a typo but intended.

First we have

G O D hearkened to their moaning,
G O D called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and Yaakov,
G O D saw the Children of Israel,
G O D knew.

God heard the Israelites, remembers, SEEs, and then God knows.

Then we have

And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him… He saw:

Then he thinks about what he sees and next

Now let me turn aside that I may see

and then

When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see,
G O D called to him
he said:
Moshe! Moshe!
He said:
Here I am.


God comes to recognize Mose and Mose can respond to God with “Here I am”.

Let’s look back at the sentence “he saw: here the bush…”. The Torah feels the need to mention that he even saw the burning bush. Does this mean that other people had walked by, saw a lone bush burning in the wilderness, and just kept going? Wouldn’t we all stop and look at a bush burning out in the woods? Apparently there was something remarkable in Moses even stopping to look at the bush.

But it does not stop there, Moses stops and gives attention long enough to see that even though the bush is burning, it is not being consumed. He decides he will even give more of his attention to see how this can be happening.

It is at this point that we see God first notices Moses.

I want to digress a bit to talk about how different this is in the Torah. All throughout Beresheit (Genesis) we have God noticing people, coming to them in their dreams, wrestling with them, and talking directly to them. God chooses Noah because he is a good man. God comes to Abraham and tells him to leave his land, that he will have a son, or to bind his son. God comes to Rachel and tells her about the two nations in her womb. God speaks to Joseph through his dreams.

But here we see that God waits for Mose to direct his attention. Up to this point, the Torah makes no mention of Moses leading our people out of bondage, receiving the Torah, leading the people through the wilderness, and to the border of the promised land. God has not spoken to Moses’s parents, his siblings, the Pharaoh, or even Moses himself.

Even though an angel or God’s messenger appeared before Moses, the Torah still mentions that Moses looks. The messenger did not call out or draw attention to itself other than being there. Granted it was a burning bush, but still, unlike in Beresheit, it does not announce itself or call out to Moses.

We, as Jews, refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. He teaches us in this portion that having the sensitivity to see the holy in everyday life, can bring us into God’s presence.

It appears that by Mose’s act of stopping and truly seeing, God notices him as being worthy of the tasks to come. By stopping and noticing a wild bush – not a tree, waterfall, a great flood – just a simple small bush that was on fire.  Moses shows his ability to truly see.

As an aside I think this is what Buber was getting at with “I and thou” versus “I and it” – moving from observing and separateness to relations and togetherness.  I would love to explore this more over kiddush (Shabbat lunch). But let’s return to using our vision for “knowing”

The Torah is not speaking of seeing as in “See Jane run, run Jane run”. I think our society tends to think of sight in this casual way, as something that just happens, not under our control. Advertising and media understand it’s power… people will see our ads or videos and want to consume or be stirred to action. But common understanding remains that we are unable to train our ability to look and intention in vision.

Our tradition says it is very much under our control – we have the ability to choose where we look and more importantly, what we give our attention. Just as we have Lo Lashon Hara (don’t let the evil inclination control your tongue), we also have Shmirat Einayim (guarding the eyes).

These laws definitely focus on not looking at things are harmful – people immodestly dressed, false idols, things which lead us to covet, or in general things that could lead us to violating a commandment or mitzvot. Just like we must make holy what we eat or what we say – Judaism calls on us to make holy what we see and give our attention.

Joshua Bell is probably one of the top violinists of our time. Concert tickets for his performances can go for hundreds of dollars. One of his video was truly eye opening – you can probably find it on Youtube. It was amazing, not because of what he did, but more because of what he showed.

He dressed in normal clothing, went to a DC subway station, put out his violin case, and started playing. I am sure you can guess what happened – some people stopped and gave money, few stopped for more than a minute or two, and almost everyone just kept on walking. They couldn’t see the lone burning bush in the wilderness.  

With this in mind I want to reclaim my obligation and direct my vision. How about finding awe in the natural world, in God’s creation. If you know me this is no shock that  this is where my mind first went.  But, the seeing here is not just looking at it in scientific ways but more as forming and understanding a relationship. I wanted to push beyond my first thought.

Harder for me, was the idea of what I should work on giving less or no attention to. With Lashon Harah, it is easier for me to understand giving kind words and praise to other people, then it is to not engage in “evil tongue” in the broad interpretation of our scholars.

In this secular new year, I aim to work on finding things, that in addition to the natural world, are good for my vision. I want to work on seeing and thereby knowing the wonder and goodness God has given me. To use my the attention of my sight to create more relationships. But I will also work on understanding more of what I, me, with my own particular Hara, need to work on guarding my eyes against.

To bring this to a close, we need to give our attention to working on seeing that which is either not visible on the surface or to that which is right in front of us and miraculous but not noticed. This has to be an intentional act – it doesn’t “just happen”.

Without turning aside to actually see, God will remain hidden. To see God around us, to see the divine in front of us (the moss, the stream,  the bird, the person… the burning bush)  we need to put in the effort and attention to look for God

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