Shemot: A Test Within a Test

Shemot: A Test Within a Test


In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, the text quickly sets the stage for all the important events to come in the remainder of the Torah.

Rabbi Joseph Prass

We see that the happy and positive conclusion of Genesis, in which the sons of Jacob were living a pleasant and protected life in Goshen, has been replaced with servitude. The current Pharaoh fears the Israelites and seeks to wipe them out through harsh labor.

Then, slong comes Moses. He’s brought into the palace of Pharaoh only to flee for his life shortly thereafter, having killed an Egyptian to protect a Hebrew slave. And so, just three chapters into Exodus, the focus is on Moses tending sheep in the wilderness for his father-in-law Jethro.

As we encounter Moses in the wilderness, he is not yet the leader that is ready to liberate the Jews from slavery; he is simply a fugitive from the wrath of Pharaoh and a lowly shepherd.   He is still a young man who is unsure of himself.

It is in the encounter at Mount Horeb that we begin to see the transformation that will create “Moshe Rabbenu,” Moses our teacher.

The Torah states:

“Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of G-d. An angel of Go-d appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.

He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’

When G-d saw that he had turned aside to look, G-d called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am’ (Exodus 3:1-4).”

This is the first instance of Moses experiencing an encounter with G-d. The revelation begins with the subtlest of signs: a burning bush.

But, for many commentators, this revelation was also a test. What was the test?

Think how long one must look at a fire to notice if the fuel is being consumed. It may take several minutes, and many of us don’t have the patience while we are in the midst of other tasks to spend time examining a mundane occurrence.

Moses not only noticed the bush and the fact that it did not consume its fuel, but he also showed the intelligence and the curiosity to turn aside and investigate further. Thus, he passed an initial test – one of observation and inquiry – and was subjected to the greater.

Once Moses turned aside, G-d called out to him just as He had to Abraham: with a simple call of his name. Like Abraham before him, Moses responded with a simple heneini – Here I am.

In this moment, Moses acknowledges his presence. But heneini is more than the the old-school roll call response – it has also come to be an affirmation of agreement within our sacred text. So, in this context, it can also be understood that he is ready to enter into a special relationship with G-d and the responsibilities that will be detailed later.

Though Moses continues to be tested in the verses to come, it is in these initial moments of his encounter with G-d that he shows the qualities that will distinguish him as our leader, teacher and prophet: He has patience, insight, intelligence and a desire to respond to the call when needed.

As we proceed through our days, my hope is that we all can draw from the inspiration of Moses, that we learn patience and have the insight and intelligence to respond to our community when we get the “call.”

Rabbi Joseph W. Prass is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.

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