Maybe it’s the Torah’s way of warning us how easy it is to go “down”, for within just a few verses, life has changed very dramatically! No longer in the Land of Israel, we’re living in Egypt; no longer a small, close-knit family but a prosperous people that multiplies and spreads, and even threatens others in its mere existence. A new pharaoh has risen, who knows not Joseph, and we’re in slavery.
We’re hanging in by a thread, literally: the sages try to analyze what kept us from being lost forever, assimilated into a new, overpowering, culture. They tell us that we’re saved because the Children of Israel kept their language, their names and their clothing; they tell us the women had to work extra hard to seduce the men, making sure there will be a next generation. Again, the amount of commentaries just tells us how bothered they were by this. How did we survive??
Pharaoh on his end clearly didn’t read about books about job productivity and staff management. Not only does he give the people hard work, but makes the hard work – harder: “You shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore. Let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish aught thereof; for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying: Let us go and sacrifice to our God” (Exodus 5:7-8).
Why not give them straw, and ask them to make twice as many bricks faster? Because the issue is not productivity; it is power. Productivity could possibly give the workers meaning: oh, look what we made! But meaning gives life, a future, hope, and Pharaoh is slowly doing what he can to take those away. Indeed, a number of commentators point to the fact that Pharaoh wanted not just to enslave their bodies but their spirits and minds as well (more on that here).
But then, parallel to that, as if opened on a different screen, we meet Moses. Moses, the child being threatened with death who grows up in the palace; a caring shepherd; hard of speech (why oh why does G-d have to make his most speaking prophet, unable to speak??). We often speak of Moses’ greatest quality as that of humility: Moses, we read much later, was the “humblest of all people that were upon the earth” (Number 12:3). Is that why G-d chose him? Maybe. But maybe a better insight can be found in three words from this week’s reading.
“Asura na ve’er’e”, says Moses upon seeing the burning bush, “let me turn aside (from my path) and see” (Exodus 3:3).
In this world, where everything has gone from bad to worse, we’re introduced to our new leader, the man who will be with us for the next four of the five books. We already saw him standing up for others, Jews and non-Jews, men and women alike. And we know G-d likes shepherds. It demonstrates and strengthens a variety of good and important leadership qualities. The sages tell us that he chanced upon the bush because a little sheep was running away from the flock, perhaps lost, and Moses went to fetch it.
To me, that just says that the sages were likewise bothered by Moshe’s “asura na” here. Why did Moses, the caring shepherd, who guides his flock through the desert’s dangerous environment, step aside from his vocation to see a mere bush?! Must be because he was even more caring!!
But for me, as much as I like the caring Moses, I like the fact that he takes initiative and goes to see the bush, davka not because of a lamb, but because he is the kind of person who wants to see what this is.
Moses, unlike the downward slope the Children of Israel are on, unable to think from the harsh labor, is able to see, to feel, to notice and give careful, focused attention to details, to be open to the wow of life, to think.
G-d could have appeared anywhere; a little earthquake or maybe a personal flood; a booming voice, a flash of lightening, but G-d appears to Moses in a sne, a small bush; a bush burning and not consumed. In order to notice that it keeps burning and not being consumed, Moses has to step aside and look. Indeed, the miracle is not G-d being there, but Moses noticing. That is what makes him the right person to be our leader, and a great model for us to this very day.