Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Prepared for Prophecy: Lessons from Shemot

What were the times in your life when you felt most primed to encounter holiness? Were you feeling unusually peaceful? Were you out in nature? Were you feeling passionate? Or maybe it was when you were most set in a routine that you could paradoxically feel something new? All of us experience holiness in different ways, in different times, in different states of mind.

However, the example of Moses in this week's Torah portion tells us something essential about experiencing the Divine in our lives. It takes work. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he can see a miracle, but he cannot encounter God fully.

Genesis 3:2-4 tell us about this miracle:

ב וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה אֵלָיו, בְּלַבַּת-אֵשׁ--מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל

2. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה--אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה: מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה 3
And Moses said: 'I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.'

ד וַיַּרְא יְהוָה, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה--וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: 'Moses, Moses.' And he said: 'Here am I.'

Why is it that in verse 2 Moses encounters and angel, and it is only in verse 4 that he encounters God? What has changed? How did his experience deepen from one scene to the next?

The Biblical commentator Ramban writes this:

Our sages intended to say that from the beginning, [both the angel] Michael and the Divine Presence (K’vod haShechinah) appeared to him, but Moses didn’t see the Divine Presence because he hadn’t prepared his heart for prophecy. When he inclined his heart and turned to see, the appearance of the Divine was revealed to him and God called to him from the midst of the bush.

Often we think that we can attain a spiritual experience just by letting go and being ourselves. When that does not work, often we find excuses for why we have not experienced Divine encounter. For Jews, often we complain that Hebrew is too difficult, synagogue attendance is too inconvenient, or that the presence of others serves as an impediment to spirituality.

However, like Moses, we need to prepare ourselves for prophecy. Learning Hebrew is hard, becoming accustomed to new tunes makes us uncomfortable, and going to synagogue may require missing a soccer game, a social event, or just having down time. However, learning, prayer, and consistency allow us to experience the synagogue as a place of spirituality, a place of home, a place where God dwells, ever waiting for us to arrive. Clergy can play a role in leading a congregation closer to this experience, but ultimately, we all need to take accountability for getting ourselves closer to that state of being. Just as we need to stretch before playing a game, so too do we need to condition ourselves spiritually for encounter. Daily prayer, awareness of what we eat, pursuing social justice, and yes, even learning Hebrew, are how we prime ourselves for a deep experience that is strongly rooted in our sacred tradition.

This week let us all think about how we can better attain a connection to the Divine. How can we put in the work to make synagogue and Jewish life what we want it to be? In what ways can I draw stronger connections between Torah wisdom and my every day life? When we prepare ourselves for prophecy, the opportunities for holiness and depth increase exponentially.

Shabbat Shalom