Unconsumed: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

Think, if you can, of a moment when you felt close to God.

Many people relate that they encountered God in a moment of awe and amazement – at the birth of a child, in a forest or by the seashore, overlooking Jerusalem. Some recount they felt God near when a life was saved, or in a moment of deep human connection. Some also talk about being present with a loved one when they take their last breath.

As the book of Exodus begins, the Torah describes Moses’ first encounter with God.  “An angel of God 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.” (Exodus 3:2).

What was God trying to teach Moses by appearing in this fashion?

All life is possessed of energy.  Every creature exercises power in some fashion.  A bird flaps its wings to take flight.  A beaver cuts down a tree to create a dam.  A lion overpowers a gazelle in its hunt for food.

But what makes humanity different is that we can consider how we will exercise our power.  We can take our energy and choose where and how we will direct it.

Moses is born in a time of fear. Terrified that the Israelites might join with an invader, Pharaoh overpowers the Israelites and enslaves them.  As his fear grows, he directs ever harsher force against the people, even imposing the most cruel of decrees – that all male infants among the Israelites be cast into the river.

But Moses’ life is saved by those who refuse to exercise power in this way.  Moses’ mother Yocheved uses her power to resist the decree.  Finding Moses floating in a basket, Pharaoh’s own daughter restrains herself, and opens her heart to the vulnerable infant.

Moses learns two lessons in his young life.  The first is that power can be applied to coerce and destroy.  And the second is that power can be applied for love and redemption.

Moses applies these lessons when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave.  So overcome with compassion for the plight of the slave, Moses uses his power both to destroy and to redeem – killing the Egyptian and saving the Israelite.

Moses spends his life as a shepherd, learning how to use force when necessary to keep his flock together, and when to exercise self-restraint and instead act with nurturing care.

So when God appears to Moses, the vision is instructive.  God appears to Moses as fire and flame, a power that razes and destroys.  But in the midst of that destructive energy, God does not destroy.  The bush burns but is not consumed.

Humanity, created in God’s image, also can choose how and when to exercise our power.  What makes humanity holy is our capacity to restrain ourselves, to possess destructive power but choose not to destroy.  What makes humanity holy is our responsibility to exercise our power with holy and just intention.

Pharaoh exercises his power to coerce and to oppress, to hurt and to harm.  He dominates his people and the Israelites for his own selfish purposes.  He wants power simply for the sake of being powerful, to accumulate wealth, fame, and glory.

Moses and God will also exercise power, but for drastically different purposes.  They use their power to uplift, to liberate, to elevate.  They apply their power for compassion, justice, and freedom.

The burning bush captures Moses’ sense of awe and wonder.  But in sparing the bush from incineration, God captures Moses’ soul.  God inspires Moses to join in a sacred mission, to use his power to liberate, to redeem, to right wrongs and to pursue justice.

Humanity is the most powerful creature on earth.  We hold extraordinary power to destroy, to coerce, to oppress, and to hurt.  But we also possess a moral power to protect, to defend, and to resist.  Even greater is our capacity for self-control and forbearance, for patience and restraint.

We can burn with righteous energy and not destroy.  We can feel deep passion and yet not be consumed.

Instead, we can channel our power to be a force for justice, for compassion, to create, to nurture, and to love.  And that is the flame that should consume us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”


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