This week's parasha/Torah portion includes a passage that has become iconic for all people engaged in a relationship with God, and that has particular significance for those of us in the Conservative/Masorti denomination of Judaism.
In the biblical account of this moment, Moshe is shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Yitro/Jethro in Midian. Out in the middle of nowhere, Moshe is drawn to an astonishing sight:
"And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire's flame from inside a bush. And he looked, and here: the bush was not consumed! And Moses said, 'Let me turn and see this great sight. Why doesn't the bush burn!?'" (Shmot/Exodus 3:2-3)
Back in the 15th chapter of Breishit/Genesis, in the evocative moment of covenant between God and Avram, we are first introduced to the association of God's presence with flame: "And the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke and a flame of fire that went between the pieces [of animals, echoing an ancient near-eastern treaty ceremony]. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram...." (Breishit/Genesis 15:17-18)
This same association will recur as God guides the progeny of Israel through the wilderness with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.
In our parashah this week, the connection is firmly established: "And God saw that he turned to see. And God called to him from inside the bush, and He said: 'Moshe, Moshe.'
And he said: 'I'm here.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 3:4)
How can we interpret this intense image of the bush that is not consumed? God's presence is the flame and the bush represents our world: rooted in the earth, organic and mortal. As God's presence infuses the earthly bush, the bush is illuminated, elevated, enlivened . . . but it is not burned up even when filled with God's presence. Here is an irresistible image of encouragement for those seeking to engage God in the real world . . . which is precisely the passion of Conservative Judaism: living in the real, modern, multi-faceted world informed by the wisdom of Jewish tradition and a passion for finding God around us.
Those who established our Conservative movement over a century ago, turned to this same iconic image of the burning bush to express their conviction that their evolving approach to Jewish life in America would similarly embody the eternity and passion and symbiosis of the burning bush. Indeed, a beautiful relief of that image adorns the front of the Jewish Theological Seminary building . . . which is the photograph on the left below.
As you can see, the theme of the flame, associated with God's presence and the light of Torah, is a consistent theme in the logos of our movement's major organizations. This week's parashah is "home base" for those of us who consider ourselves Conservative/Masorti Jews.
When I return to our "home base" image of the burning bush, I am recharged by the promise of that image: I am reminded again that God's presence is not only inextricably part of Creation, of that organic, mortal world I inhabit, but that the fact of God's presence is meant to generate heat and light. The heat of passion for my people and my tradition. The light of Torah as cast by God.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.