Parashat Shemot 5781

6 January 2021 – 22 Tevet 5781

Rabbi Janet Burden

When I was studying comparative literature in the late 1970’s, I came across a short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” To be honest, I can’t remember much about it now except for the central image that forms the title. That image has stayed with me, as it was the author’s key metaphor for life and life’s choices. Life is a slowly expanding garden of ever-forking paths. As we walk through the garden, we must continually choose: shall we turn this way or that? There is no way to avoid the question. If we are to go anywhere, we must make choices. As our lives pass, we make choices – hundreds of choices, thousands of choices – all of which contribute to the shaping of our destiny. And for each individual, there are an infinite number of possible paths….

What I sometimes find difficult to accept when considering one’s path in retrospect is that it is generally quite impossible to tell which choices will prove to be the significant ones. Sometimes what appears to be a major fork in the road turns back on itself and effects a giant loop. Equally, what appears to be a minor diversion can lead one to utterly unexplored parts of the garden.

It has always struck me as amazing that the whole theophany of the burning bush could have been so easily missed. An angel of God, the text says, appears b’labat esh, which is usually translated as “in a flame of fire.” But where does it appear? Apparently, not right in front of Moses, or even in his main field of vision. From Moses’ words, we learn that it is off to one side. He says, asurah na, “I will turn aside now and see this great sight – why does the bush not burn up?” I have often wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t been the curious type. Would he simply have shrugged his shoulders at the mundane sight of a little bush on fire and turned away?

Fortunately, he is the curious type and turns to have a look. He makes what appears to be quite an insignificant choice to leave the path he is on and to turn another way. And by this one act – both his life and that of thousands of others are changed forever.

Of course, we the readers have the luxury of hindsight to appreciate the ultimate significance of Moses’ simple act. We already know how the story ends, as we read it year after year. Yet even if we were approaching it for the very first time, we could still know that this willingness to turn aside was crucial. The narrative continues, “And God saw that he turned aside to see and called out to him from the midst of the thorn bush.” The grammar of the line implies a causal connection. It is precisely because Moses turns aside that God subsequently calls to him.

It is the willingness to engage, to find out, that God is presented as seeking. Seemingly, it is also the only quality God requires when looking a leader for the Jewish people. After all, if Moses had submitted a CV for the job at this point, it wouldn’t have been particularly impressive. He was an 80-year old itinerant shepherd with no job experience and a criminal past. And let’s face it, he didn’t even want the job. As the conversation continues, he hardly strikes us as eager to take on the task.

This, however, does not dissuade God. Moses is the one. The Presence in the Bush calls his name twice, a sign of the classic prophetic call. In a sense, Moses further ‘proves’ himself by responding Hineini, a word that cannot help but evoke in us memories of Abraham. Here, as in the Genesis text, that word which we translate as “Here I am,” identifies not a physical location but rather an existential position. He stands ready, open and responsive – and is rewarded by a theophany so wondrous that he must hide his face.

We can only imagine what awesome sight causes Moses to avert his eyes. But however afraid he is, he continues to listen and to respond. He may hide his face, but he does not hide his doubts and concerns. He stays fully engaged with the words that are being spoken to him, responding honestly, openly and humanly. When he finally assents to the task (halfway through the next chapter!) he does so with all of his objections stated and answered. The choice has been made, the path has forked – and nothing, nothing will ever be the same again.

Fortunately, none of us is likely to be faced with a life path that forks quite as dramatically as Moses’ did. Nonetheless, the point I made earlier remains. We cannot always know which choices will turn out to be significant ones. Moses didn’t know what he would find when he followed his own curiosity, but he was engaged enough with life to take a risk. That is what God was watching for – in him, and I think, in us – for as long as we continue to walk through this garden.

May God grant us the ability to make our choices well and live with them with grace.

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