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Parashat Sh’mot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

“And the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives man speech?
Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Exodus 3:11)

Parashat Sh’mot opens the book of Exodus (also called Sh’mot in Hebrew) with the Israelite’s descent into misery and slavery. Sh’mot also introduces Moses, one of the Torah’s central characters. Moses encounters God for the first time when he is distracted from his shepherding: “…He gazed and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” (Ex. 3:2) The burning bush is a potent symbol in Jewish thought and has been interpreted in many different ways.

Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) says the burning bush represents God’s sheltering presence even when the Jewish people burn with pain. Exodus Rabbah focuses on God’s experience, claiming God’s voice comes out of the flame (Ex. 3:4-6) to demonstrate God suffers when Israel suffers. Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher) notes sneh, bush, is related to sinai, or Sinai and maintains the burning bush symbolizes the fire which will burn atop Mount Sinai during the revelation of the Torah. S’forno (c. 1470–c. 1550; Italian commentator and physician) has a very different take: the angel represents the Israelites, while the bush represents the Egyptians (the thorns which ensnare the Israelites), who are not consumed even though God sends the fire of the plagues.

Individually and collectively, this is pretty epic and powerful imagery. But Exodus Rabbah (2:5) offers something more “up close and personal.” God chooses a thorn bush, a small and insignificant shrub, to demonstrate no place is devoid of God’s presence and no individual is too insignificant for God to notice. God chooses to live with the humble.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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