I will be that which I will be
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
This week’s parasha, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) is so rich it feels like a holdover of the holiday meals I enjoyed since I last wrote. Being faced with abundance is both satisfying and overwhelming, nourishing and indulgent, delicious and dangerous. Eating one latke is good, having two is enough, and if you consume three, well, you suffer. The spiritual challenge of latkes, and Torah, is being aware of your capacity, your needs, and your ability to use what you have been given.
Shemot includes some of the most powerful images and sound bytes in all of Jewish scripture. A Pharaoh arises who “did not know Joseph.” He is emotionally unstable, anxious, and strategically challenged. To stem his fear of Egypt being overridden by foreigners, he first enslaves all of the aliens, and then orders that all Hebrew baby boys be killed upon birth. Two midwives, Shifra and Puah, resist; they ignore the edict and in the process one Hebrew boy, who will later be known as Moses, is saved. Moses gets adopted by (of all people) a daughter of Pharaoh and is raised as an Egyptian. He is torn between his Egyptian privilege and his Hebrew heritage. In a bad moment of explosive identity awareness, he kills an Egyptian taskmaster who had been mistreating a Hebrew slave. He is found out and he runs into the desert where he settles into a Midianite village. Life is good and quiet for a long time. One day Moses, now a shepherd, wanders smack into God in the form of a burning, but-not-being-consumed, shubbery out in the badlands. Moses literally “is turned from his path;” he and the Divine burning bush have a mind-blowing chat, and a whole new spiritual adventure begins.
Here’s the thing: God is feral. God is, and is-es. It doesn’t actually give a hoot about human comfort or happiness, our fortune or our approval, our pain or our pleasure. God only cares that we, like It, be what we must be, at any cost. Moses is God’s perfect human example of how to live like that, and it is anything but easy. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush places him squarely in a major choice point. As taught by Rabbi Gershon Winker, in the moment when Moses saw an untended fire he should have kicked sand on it. That’s what any sane desert dweller would do. You just don’t let fire run free in the wilderness. But Moses doesn’t: he studies it, he comprehends it, and while the bush wasn’t consumed, Moses was.
The Fire gives Moses one potent nugget of truth that fully describes what it means to be a human, to have free will, to be a dynamic living being. When Moses asks for God’s name he is told, “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh/I will be that which I will be. Honestly, it is a response that is frustrating or fulfilling, maddening and masterful, terrifying and utterly true. God is off-leash—unfolding, unfurling, unbound. God energizes the whole universe with its own constant becoming. It infuses our Universe with both law and chaos, blessing and curse, the mundane and the miraculous. And they are all merely opposite sides of oneness.
So, as this New Year starts, we get another chance to turn off the old, rutted road; to be consumed by reckoning with the paradoxes hidden in our choices, ideals and hopes. May this Shabbat bring forth courage, acceptance, and delight. Delight that fuels the wild, unfettered, flickering flames of our eternal becoming.