Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Moses’s First Vision
Moses’s First Vision
By Dovid Sears
Moses exemplified the person who feels that he or she doesn’t belong in this world. Thus, he named his firstborn son “Gershom,” explaining “Because I was a stranger (Hebrew: ger) in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). Moses was an adopted child from a persecuted foreign nation, raised in the house of Pharaoh, who had become the arch-enemy of his people. At the same time, he was rejected by his fellow Israelites, the contentious Dathan and Aviram at the top of the list. In any case, he was unable to live together with his family and nation, both before and after killing the Egyptian taskmaster whom he saw whipping a Hebrew slave to the brink of death. So he fled until he came upon the house of Jethro, the renegade High Priest of Egypt gone into hiding in Midian. Initially, Moses was rejected by his future father-in-law, too. Thrown into a pit, he was secretly sustained for seven years by Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah. Ultimately, he married his compassionate benefactor, and spent what, in the normal course of events, would have been the rest of his life as a shepherd in the desert. Thus, Moses’s perpetual outsider status struck a chord with the collective exile of Israel.
While tending Jethro’s sheep, Moses reached the age of which the Mishnah states, “At eighty, one attains strength.” At eighty, even one who formerly had been deceived by the illusion of this world sees life as a “fleeting shadow” (Psalms 144:4). All of this seems to have been a prerequisite for Moses’s first prophetic vision.
The vehicle that God chose to summon Moses was the “burning bush that is not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). Seeing the conflagration in the distance, Moses called it “this great sight.” What was so great about it? What did God wish to communicate through this symbol?
The Torah states that God is revealed through fire, as the verse states, “He is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). This accounts for one aspect of Moses’s vision. The desert bush itself is a symbol of humility. As the Talmudic Sages taught, “Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility.” True greatness is revealed through humility. Therefore, the vision of the burning bush teaches that God reveals Himself only to one who is humble, like Moses.
This interpretation is instructive for us. But why did Moses need to witness this? Didn’t the very fact that he was granted this vision show that he had already attained this level? We must try to consider the meaning of the desert vision from Moses’s point of view.
The fire of the burning bush represents the impermanence of this world. However, the fact that the bush was not consumed suggests that there is something indestructible and enduring within the transitory and ephemeral. Thus, the vision is a symbol of the very paradox of reality: that impermanence and immutability, time and eternity, are one.
At the same time, this may be understood as a vision of Moses himself, a mirror of enlightened being: within the historical “self,” represented by fire, resides the Divine, represented by the unconsumed bush. As the kabbalist Rabbi Shabsai Sheftel Horowitz of Prague (1565-1619) states: “The soul is a portion of God Above.” Thus, it endures forever.
This vision is the gist of the Redemption: the realization of the Divine Oneness that surpasses all change and decay, in which dualism and conflict dissolve, peace reigns, and “death is swallowed up forever” (Isaiah 25:8). Thus the fire of the burning bush may be compared to the tekhelet – the blue thread in the ritual fringes that Jewish men are biblically required to wear on their four-cornered garments. Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) relates the word tekhelet to takhlit, meaning the ultimate goal of creation. Of this, the Zohar (“Book of Splendor”) states that the spiritual power of the blue thread “consumes and destroys.” It is the aspect of holiness that destroys all evil, while giving life to the righteous.
A final question: Why was Moses shown this vision immediately prior to the Exodus? As the Redeemer of Israel, his task was to transmit this perception to the rest of the people. As Moses declared during the incident of Eldad and Medad, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets, if God would but place His spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)
This depended on Moses in particular, because “Moses is Israel, and Israel is Moses.” All souls are incorporated within the collective souls of the righteous, such as Moses, bound to one another in unity.
This unity, too, is represented by fire. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov observes, “The soul is like a candle, as it is written, ‘The soul of man is the candle of God’ (Proverbs 20:27). When many souls converge, this produces light, which in turn produces joy. This is the paradigm of ‘the light of the righteous brings joy’ (Proverbs 13:9).”
Light shines when the inner unity of all separate minds and all being becomes manifest. This is one aspect of the Redemption. And joy is an aspect of the Redemption, as it is written: “For you shall go forth in joy” (Isaiah 55:12)