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Vayikra - Shmini

Shabbat shalom

This sedra presents a veritable embarrassment of riches and it was seriously hard to decide what to speak about, but I found myself drawn to the burning bush scene, the moment in which Moshe, living a quiet farmer’s life, a million miles away from the heaviness of his upbringing in Egypt is abruptly called to a vocation which will change his life, and change the Jewish story forever.

It is a story of drama and the supernatural, but this morning I’d like to share some ideas for how this story can have an impact on our daily lives. But let’s start with the drame. A bush which is miraculously not consumed by fire. The midrash in Shemot Raba says The celestial fire has three peculiar qualities: it produces blossoms, it does not consume the object around which it plays, and it is black of colour. Then we have the drama of God’s voice, calling for the first time to Moshe. Here the midrash actually plays down the drama, in a beautiful way:

The Holy One said: if I reveal Myself to him in a thunderous voice, I will terrify him; if in a whisper, he will take little note of prophecy. What did God do? He revealed Himself in the voice of Moses’ father, whereupon Moses answered, “Here am I. What does my father wish?” God said, “I am not your father. I am the God of your father. In my need to win you over, I addressed you in a familiar voice so that you would not be afraid”

In the Dreamworks movie The Prince of Egypt, the filmmakers took a similar tack and the voice of God was spoken by the same actor, Val Kilmer, who played Moshe. (And by the way they also had the bush bud and bloom throughout the scene). But there is undeniably more drama - God wants to send Moshe back into Egypt, a terrifying mission in a country that holds unresolved personal trauma for Moshe. Moshe refuses, not once, but I counted five different times. God gives hints as to how things will unfold - with trials and plagues but that eventually the Israelites would leave Egypt with wealth and serve God on the very same mountain on which they now speak. Finally God performs miracles for Moshe to prove himself by.

Drama which makes for an amazing story but which might feel hard to relate to ourselves.

Except there is a part of this story which is so close to us that it could easily escape our notice when reading the text. Words which are close enough that those who were here for shacharit have already said them, and which will say in just a few moments in mussaf.

The opening blessing of the amidah, known as Avot1—ancestors—opens with the words:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ

וֵאלֹקֵי אֲבותֵינוּ

אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹקֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקב.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our God

and God of our ancestors

God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov

Normally, in Jewish prayer, if a sentence begins with the words “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God” we expect the next words to be: “King of the universe.”2 But instead of “King of the universe” we say “and God of our ancestors.” This shift transports us to the burning bush, where this phrase appears not once but three times: first as God’s way of introducing Godself to Moshe, and twice in the instruction for how he should introduce himself to the Israelite people.

It’s a bit like a hyperlink between the Torah and our prayers today, or as Rabbi Elie Kaunfer calls it, a “Biblical intertext”, and I am indebted to him for many of today’s ideas.

By quoting the scene of Moshe at the burning bush, at the start of our Amidah prayer, a host of new associations that widen our understanding of the prayer. Indeed, with this link, we can interpret and experience these lines of our Amidah quite differently.

So here are some ideas for how this biblical hyperlink can imbue our davening experience with the burning bush every time we say the words.

1 - who the speaker is

One shift is the speaker of this line: in the Amidah, we, the worshipers, seem to be describing God as “God of our ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov.” But in the biblical narrative, it is God who is speaking to Moshe. Connecting this fact to our prayer, we now have a very different orientation to the beginning of the Amidah. We start out not by speaking, but by listening, a bit like in the Shema. God is calling to us, telling us who God is, like God called to Moshe at that very first moment of encounter. What might we hear—not just say—in this moment of prayer? And like the midrash said God is speaking in an approachable voice, so close that it might be a parent, and that’s why God says “I am not your father, I am the God of your father”.

2. God is telling us who we are

God is sharing new information with Moshe: Moshe is descended from Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. These are his ancestors. This could be news to Moshe because while we know he identifies with Israelites as his people, he might not have known their history or their faith. How much Torah or Jewish history could have been shared under the pressures of slavery? (As a lovely aside, before Moshe kills the Egyptian, the text tells us he looked this way and that, and saw there was no man. R.Cardozo says he wasn’t just checking that the coast was clear, he was looking this way to his Egyptian identity, that way to his Israelite identity and saw that was no way to live - so he killed the Egyptian - both the real Egyptian and the Egyptian inside him. So he has Israelite identity, but may know nothing of his history.) Now, however, God is reminding Moshe about his lineage: Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. For us as worshipers, this may be a helpful reminder for our own connection to our past. To what extent are we ignorant or even alienated from our ancestry? How often do we stop and remind ourselves who we are and where we’ve come from?

3. We are being called to something new

With this encouragement to listen, and with the space that this opens up in our minds, what might we feel called to do? For most of us it’s unlikely to be uprooting our family to liberate an enslaved people, but what leadership are we called to? (If you’re stuck for ideas, we’re looking for security and kiddush volunteers)! In what way can we alleviate the suffering of others? And lest you think you can’t do anything new or you can’t rise to a new call, you’re in good company. Moshe too said:

שמות ג:יא

מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃

Exodus 3:11

Who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and take out the people of Israel from Egypt?

As R.Elie Kaunfer says: “Perhaps I have a mission in life, but I am not ready to accept it. This allows the Amidah to also be a moment of self-reflection. Am I prepared to enter into the main story of my life? Or do I want to remain the proverbial shepherd in Midian, far from my life’s purpose? It is hard to change course in life to refocus our energies, even if it was why we were put on earth. Nevertheless, the Amidah can remind us of the potential we have to change and to accept the mission of our life.”

4. We, like Moshe feel an inability to even speak

Moshe’s “who am I?” reaction is also coupled with a lack of ability to speak. “Moshe said: ‘What shall I say to them?’” (v. 13) and later in the dialogue (4:10): “I am not a man of words.”

The doubt expressed by Moshe might also be familiar to us praying the Amidah. As a child I remember being told that the Amida is an audience with God. This is really hard to get one’s head around. “What shall I say?” resonates deeply here as well. Yes, we’re provided with a wealth of words in the siddur, some of which may resonate and others not. “What shall I say?” How can I make the best of this quiet space in a noisy day, a noisy service, to both listen and speak?

So there we have it. Four possible ways to connect with the Amida through those lines at the beginning: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ וֵאלֹקֵי אֲבותֵינוּ אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹקֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקב First, we dont have to speak as much as listen. God is speaking to us in a voice that is as close as a loving parent. Second, God is telling us who we are, about our history and our story. Third, we’re being called to something, to step into our life mission, to help alleviate suffering in the world. Will we step into that or hold back? And last, what will be say, even when, like Moshe, the right words are so hard to find?

We don’t often get a chance to think about prayer and if you’re anything like me, our siddur can be a mixed bag of inspiring, confusing and sometimes alienating. But when it comes to the characters in our Tanakh they are so human and often relatable. So as we transition into mussaf, and begin the Amidah with these words from our parasha, allow yourself to be Moshe at the burning bush, hearing a call from a God you might not know as well as you’d like, connecting with the history of your people, asking yourself what you could be called to step up into, even if it can be hard to know how to start speaking.

May the age old words of our siddur and the much loved characters of our Tanakh always hold freshness, inspiration and connection for us.

Shabbat shalom


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