Shemot: Moses Is Not Consumed

April 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 3, 2010.)

And a messenger of God appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of the thornbush, and he saw, and behold, the thornbush was blazing with fire, and the thornbush was not being consumed. (Exodus/Shemot 3:2)

uchal = being consumed, being devoured

The original Levi, Jacob’s third son, was a violent man.  (See last week’s blog on Levi and his brother Shimon, who perpetrated the massacre at Shechem.)  On his deathbed, Jacob praises most of his sons, but when it comes to Shimon and Levi, he says:  Accursed is their rage because it is fierce, and their fury because it is relentless.  (Genesis 49:7).

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, emphasizes that Moses is a Levite, the son of a Levite father and Levite mother.  In the next four books of the Torah, Exodus (Shemot, “Names”) through Deuteronomy (Devarim, “Words”), members of the tribe of Levi are often depicted as quick to anger and prone to violence.  After the golden calf worship, the Levites answered Moses’ call to slaughter 3,000 Israelite men in one day, without any sort of trial to determine if they really were the idolaters (Exodus 32:26-28).  Later, when an Israelite takes a Baal-Peor worshiper into the Tent of Meeting to fornicate, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, a Levite, runs in and spears the couple in the act (Numbers 25:1-14).  And after Moses has led the Israelites across the Reed Sea, he loses his temper on many occasions.

Yet before that crossing, Moses is portrayed as a cautious and moderate person.  When he is born, his mother sees that he is “good” and hides him for three months (Exodus 2.2).  19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch points out that the reason she is able to hide him is that he is a “good” baby, a baby who does not scream or wail as long as his needs are met.

When Moses reaches adulthood, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, but he does not strike down the Egyptian until after he has looked around (Exodus 2:12).  Some commentators say he is looking to see if anyone else would address the injustice.  Probably he is checking to see if there were witnesses, since two verses later he is frightened to learn that someone knows about his killing of the Egyptian.  Either way, Moses does not act impulsively, in the heat of anger.

Is Moses rational and restrained, or merely timid?  Alone in a strange land, he stands up to a gang of cruel shepherds in order to rescue seven young women (Exodus 2:17).  When he sees the burning bush, he knows it is a miracle, but is not afraid to come close to look at it.  When God speaks to him, he hides his face in fear—but it is appropriate to be afraid of gazing at God (Exodus 3:6).  When God turns Moses’ staff into a serpent, he flees from it, but then when God tells him to pick up the snake by the tail, he obeys at once (Exodus 4:3-4).  When Moses begs God to send someone else to Egypt, he gives reasons that indicate low self-confidence rather than timidity: he is a poor orator, and he believes he will fail (Exodus 4:10, 4:13).

Moses has a burning desire to correct injustice and save the victims of abuse, whether they are Hebrew slaves in Egypt or female shepherds in Midyan.  He is willing to take risks to act against the abusers.  But he keeps his head; his anger is restrained.  Like the thornbush, he burns inside, but he is not consumed by the fire.

Moses has the passionate heart of a Levite.  Why is he able to set limits on his fiery nature?  Is it because his passion is for God and for justice?

Or because he is brought up by women associated with water—his mother and sister, who entrust him to the water of Nile, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who draws him out of the water?

Or because he is simply born “good”?

I wonder what nature I inherited: earth, water, air, or fire?  And what enables me to set limits on it—to avoid being buried, or drowned, or blown away, or consumed?


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