In the desert you can’t remember your name…. In the Book of “Names”, so is Exodus, Shmot, שמות, called in Hebrew, some have a name and many more – don’t. Perhaps, this is so we won’t get caught up in the details, as if it doesn’t matter who it is, just what happens, and we should stay focused on the big picture story.
And maybe it’s because with this book, we move into exile; Exile – in capital E. In Exile, the people around you, can barely pronounce the name you were given. And they don’t know you. You’re no longer “little Moishele” from next door, the son (or daughter) of… but “that Hebrew”, “that Israeli”, “that guy”, “that girl”. People tell you apart by some outward characteristic – size, color, nationality, some abnormality. Exile messes with the details of one’s identity, and threatens your existence on every possible level. You’re teetering between almost forgetting completely where you’ve come from and where you’re going to, being assimilated and gone, and between having to fight for survival, physical, emotional, spiritual. May we fnd the way out of the Tight, Narrow place, whatever it is, that is our personal Mitzrayim (Egypt).
של נעלך מעל רגלך….
“shal naalecha me’al raglecha”, says G-d to Moses in their famous meetup at the Burning Bush, “take your shoes off your feet” (Exodus 3:5). I’m thinking about barefoot Moses today, as I venture into the impressive snow storm outside. “I don’t care about the storm,”, I tell my friend, “I have shoes”. I say it and immediately regret. What kind of (stupid) statement is this? I care plenty!! Not to mention that on top of my heavy-duty, water-proof, rubber-soled, thick-lined shoes, I have many layers. And yet, I wonder, what is it about shoes?
Shoes affect the way we walk, our posture when we stand, our balance when we talk, argue, sing, dance, feel energetic and by contrast, feel exhausted. Shoes impact our attitude regarding our height, confidence, presence. And by contrast, what is about being barefoot? About feeling the earth on our skin? About being shorter, closer to the ground, simpler, humbler?
When I was little (very little), I would put on my mom’s high-heels and strut around, clicking them noisily on the tile floor, feeling tall and powerful, even if I was in my PJ, and by contrast, how about wearing a fancy evening gown, barefoot? The whole feel of the glamourous dress evaporates.
And how Moshe’s first encounter with G-d? There was no requirement to “strip”, but to take it just a notch down; to approach holiness with feeling, with nuance, with presence, with humility. To come barefoot.
What is the big deal about the Burning Bush? If G-d wanted to show Himself, couldn’t He have done so through a much grander medium? But the Burning Bush is not about G-d, who can anyway do anything; it’s about Moshe; it’s about how to be in the world; it’s about taking off barriers to be more present.
A Burning Bush that is Not Consumed is no miracle at all. Until one actually takes the extra minute to notice, it’s just another irrelevant fire in some middle of nowhere desert. Most of us might run to get water, or just – run. It takes a Moshe. To stop. Approach. Her the instructions. And. Really. Really. Look.
In the mishna, in Pirkei Avot (2:6) it says: במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש — “Where there is no “ish” – no mensch, no one “worthy” — try to be one”. When there is no one who would be an upstanding citizen; when everybody stands back; where there is so called “no one”, you try and be “the one”.
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses finds himself in several bad situations. In one of them, the text says, he is looking here and there, maybe trying to spot someone else who would do something, but, alas: “vayar ki ein ish” – וירא כי אין איש – and sees that there is “no-one” (Exodus 2:12). He then ducks the Egyptian in the sand. But, as Prince of Egypt shows so poignantly, there were lots of people around, and the next day, it turns out someone was there who saw exactly what happened and challenged him:
“Are you about to kill me as you did to the Egyptian yesterday?
Moses demonstrates the verse from Pirkei Avot in actuality and shows us what it’s like to be a leader: to do for others regardless of who they are, Hebrews, Egyptians, Midyanites. “Where there is “no one”, be the one; do what you can to fill the gap between what doesn’t happen and what should be done.
There are a number of heroes at the opening of the Book of Exodus that follows that call: Moses’s mother. And sister. And the midwives. And Pharaoh’s daughter. And Moses’ wife. To which we can paraphrase and say, במקום שאין אנשים, אפשר שתהיה אשה ‘where there is no “ish”, there might be an… isha’ (woman).