Pausing to Notice, to Question, and to Serve with our Soul: Moses, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Burning Bush

January 13, 2023

This Shabbat, the weekend on which we commemorate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, we also enter into the book of Exodus. Of course, the narrative of our people’s enslavement and redemption, and the leadership of Moses, have layers of resonance with the life and work of Dr. King. In his speeches, Dr. King drew from the rich legacy of the Hebrew prophets, whose vision and commitment to building a just and equitable world against all odds served as inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement as well as so many other movements for social justice throughout history. Ultimately, the life’s purpose of both Moses and Dr. King was deeply communal, leading a people to necessary freedom, but their work was dependent upon an ability to listen to or to notice a voice, a spark, within themselves. Ultimately, all prophets must, even for a moment, be able to clear the mental clutter (assumptions about themselves and the world, self-doubt, nihilism, habit…) and experience a spark of awareness of what they can and must do. We may not see ourselves as prophets or leaders like Moses or Dr. King, but each one of us has a sacred calling, a purpose – the gifts of our unique soul that it is our responsibility to bring forth into the world; ultimately, the work that each of us does in the world through the way we live our lives, has a deep and lasting impact on society and on the universe even if we, with our limited view, don’t understand it that way. The neshama – the unique soul each of us is given – has its particular work to do. And there is no life too small not to have an indelible impact on the whole. God needs us. The world needs us. And in the course of living our everyday lives, there is so much to get in the way of remembering that. So let’s look at the scene from this week’s torah reading, parashat Shemot — the encounter of Moses and God at the burning bush, the spark (pun intended) for Moses, the reluctant leader, taking on this job he never applied for – leading his people to redemption from slavery.

Moses is shepherding his flock in the land of Midian, where he has settled after fleeing Egypt after he killed an Egyptian taskmaster. The text reads: “A messenger 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. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”

In this one moment, Moses, his people, and the course of history were forever changed. Because Moses stopped long enough to “gaze,” to notice. Many of our sages believed that the bush was aflame all along, but Moses paused long enough to see it. So Moses has the ability, even a momentary one, to step out of his everyday life, his habit and his path, and to “turn aside to look.” Perhaps this means that he was able to let go of the “mental clutter” – habits and self-judgements and assumptions about himself and the world – and to listen to his wise self (perhaps the inner voice/the wise self – is the same thing as the voice of God?) When he stops long enough to notice, he hears a call. The call is, simply, his name. This represents his unique neshama – his soul and its purpose. He answers the call with the word Hinneni – which is not easily translatable. It doesn’t mean simply “Here I am” but rather “I am here and ready to serve.” It is a word which holds within it an immediacy and clarity that shines forth – a total letting go of the assumptions, judgments, fears or habits that can stand in our way so much of the time. 

Moses’ first instinct is to move closer toward the bush – because he thinks that the call is coming from beyond him – but the lesson here is that both the call and the response are coming from deep within him – what we can call his wise self. The voice of God calls from the bush “Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!” In other words – you, right there, right where you are standing and in all that you are, that is holy, sacred ground. Take off your shoes (perhaps representing the mental clutter that gets in the way of mindfulness of our truth and our true purpose) – stand flush with the earth. That right there, is holy ground.

Moses notices, he questions, and he responds “Hinneni,” but all of this lasts seemingly only a moment before his self-doubt, his assumptions, his judgment and stories about himself all come rushing back in. In short order, he explains that he’s not the guy for this job – as he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (understood as a stutter) and then pleads for God to send someone else. He probably wants to put his shoes right back on!

Mindful awareness leading to clarity around our soul’s purpose is not something we can access easily or regularly, but reflecting on the lives of our leaders and prophets both ancient and modern, perhaps we can be inspired this Shabbat and beyond to pause just long enough to notice, to listen, to question, to remove our shoes/mental clutter, to stand flush with the earth in the place where “I am I,” where we can answer the call – “Moses! Moses!” (insert your name here!) with “Hinneni” – I am here to serve. (Amazingly, this is also how God introduces himself to Moses, when Moses asks his name – God says essentially “I am I” or “I will be what I will be”) 

We may not always understand the importance and impact of our individual life on the world as a whole – but everyone of us, like Moses and like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has our essential work to do in this world, and a role to play in helping the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice (to paraphrase Dr. King). This Shabbat, take a moment to notice the bush aflame, to question it and to wonder about it, and out of that mindful awareness, take off your shoes (metaphorical, physical, or both!) and notice that who you are, and where you stand, is a holy and necessary part of this world, of its wholeness and healing.

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman