By: Rabbi Rich Kirschen Director,
Anita Saltz International Education Center
World Union for Progressive Judaism
“When the Lord saw that he (Moshe) had turned aside to look (to notice), God called out to him from out of the bush.” Exodus, Chapter 3 verse 4. Being “present in the moment” is never easy for most of us, and for some of us, this challenge resonates with a lifetime of ADD (attention deficit disorder). Ironically Moshe who is known for leading the Jewish people through some of our most magnificent and dramatic moments, davka (Hebrew for -can you believe!) begins his liberation mission not with a remarkable miracle, but rather with something, that at first glance appears quite mundane. What is instructive about our first encounter with Moshe is that he possesses the trait of- mindfulness; he is able to be present in the moment and he is able to truly see what in fact is happening with this seemingly insignificant shrub in the desert. And only then does God call out to him from the bush. We also learn from Moshe that sometimes what we perceive as an ordinary moment; can in fact be a gateway to an extraordinary journey. And so it is not only the dragons that you slay or the Pharos you take down, but sometimes it is just as important to have the ability to stop, take notice, and when we do, suddenly there is no going back to where we were a few moments ago.
The book of Exodus differs from the intense family drama of Genesis. This book of the Torah brings us the story on a widescreen with a cast of hundreds of thousands. Here I must confess something, I write his name- Moshe, and yet somewhere suppressed in the recesses of my suburban Long Island memory, Moshe is none other than Chuck Heston. And then of course, I cannot help but think of Planet of the Apes, as I said being present is not easy; and eighteen consecutive Passovers of watching Cecil B. DeMille’s the Ten Commandments will have this effect on a certain demographic. But taking the Masach (Hebrew word for movie screen) out of the Tanach (Hebrew word for the Hebrew Bible); my story begins when a nine year old Chassidic boy named Moshe insulted a forty six year old Reform rabbi named Rich in Machaneh Yehuda (the large outdoor market in Jerusalem)…a few hours before Shabbat.
I was buying Gottkes (Yiddish/Hebrew word for long underwear) – what can I say Jerusalem stone apartments are very cold in the winter! When I heard a young girl counting in Yiddish…with her braids and long skirt, she could have been my grandmother over one hundred years ago from Probuzhna (once Austro-Hungary, once Poland and now Ukraine). And then I heard her call her brothers’ name- Moshe (my grandfathers’ name) and I was so taken aback, I looked at the boy, smiled and asked, “Du red Yiddish?” Do you speak Yiddish?” The little boy looked at me and stared straight into my eyes, said nothing and continued to stare. I tried to speak with him again, but he just looked back into my eyes and was silent. Finally the store keeper looked at me and said, “he is not allowed to speak to anybody who is not religious (read ultra-Orthodox).” As we learn from this Torah portion, sometimes our most important spiritual journeys begin not with the thunder and lightening, but with an everyday moment.
And this encounter in Jerusalem, a city where it is not uncommon for worlds to collide, brought me to this week’s Torah portion- Shemot. In its essence Parshat Shemot is about leaving the narrowness of Egypt and ultimately arriving at the vast expansiveness of Sinai, a setting that is broad and uncontained. For Progressive Jews leaving the narrow straits of the Nile Valley reflects our desire, our charge if you will, to be open. Every movement has its advantages and disadvantages. Progressive Jews have made an invaluable contribution to the Jewish people by constructing a plastic-religious consensus that is in fact accepting and welcoming. For many of us the question is not how to sit down at the table with the “other” but how to sit down at the table with “family.” How does a movement that defines itself as pluralistic – work towards pluralism when the going gets rough? I ask this question because personally I have always learned from other movements.
I learned from Richard Joel (Modern Orthodox), president of the Yeshiva University, that pluralism means “my accepting your right to be wrong.” And Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (spiritual father of Religious Zionism) taught us that “there are many rooms in the house of the palace.” Chaim Nachman Bilaik (Secular Zionist), Israel’s greatest Modern Hebrew poet was able to acknowledge his admiration as well as his reservation for the traditional Talmud student in his poem Ha-Matmid. And the Sar Shalom (the first Chassidic Belzer Rebbe) taught that Akshones (Yiddish for obstinacy) is indeed our strength for learning and yet our weakness for getting along. Finally Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (Reform rabbi in the U.S.) has had a deep influence on my haskafah i.e. my understanding of Torah and certainly this d’var torah. Sometimes we just forget that there is so much we can learn from one another. But that is what Exodus is about starting with a small moment and realizing we have a lot of work ahead.