Moses the rookie chaplain and the burning bush

My Saturday morning teaching for ordination
January 10, 2015 • 19 Tevet 5775
Erev Rav David Evan Markus

B’rshut rabbotai (with the permission of my teachers), and in the merit of all of our teachers and their teachers, Shabbat shalom.

When I entered the patient’s hospital room during chaplaincy rounds last November, quickly it became clear that this visit would be unusual. Previously the patient had worked a white-collar job, but now she was totally non-verbal: brain damage robbed her of the ability to communicate by any means. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t process speech, and she couldn’t read. Her eyes could track faces, but nothing more. Unsure what to do, I tried to connect in other ways. I held her hand and matched my breathing to hers. We locked eyes. Soon the patient shed a few tears, and then her eyes flamed with fear. Terror shot from her face – and not just her face: her whole being seemed to burn. Finally having a vehicle to express emotion, emotion poured out from the depth of her soul.

In difficult moments that are natural parts of life, a common instinct is to turn away, look away, change the subject – anything to shield our insides. Especially for rookie chaplains like me, pastoral education is about learning not to turn away – or at least noticing that we do and then turning back. We learn how to sit in the pit, to journey with more complete inner transparency wherever life leads. When we flinch and turn away, a good chaplain supervisor can help us see every turn for what it is – a wake-up call to reflect on why, what it was inside us that couldn’t stay fully present – and then use it to pivot toward emotional and spiritual growth.

As my patient raged with terror, I felt myself flinch. Her fear burned so hot that instinctively I feared it may burn me too. And as rookie chaplains do, emotionally I shielded my heart – just for a few seconds, but enough for me to notice. I turned my focus back to the patient, bolted my feet to the floor, and let her flames burn me along with her. Soon her fire subsided. She calmed, smiled sweetly, closed her eyes, and fell fast asleep.

In today’s Torah portion, Moses saw a bush that burned. From it, Moses heard God speak, and then –

וַיַּסְתֵ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנָ֔יו כִּ֣י יָרֵ֔א מֵהַבִּ֖יט אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים

Moses hid his face for he was afraid to gaze at God.

This is the encounter that transforms Moshe ro’einu (Moses our shepherd) into Moshe rabbeinu (Moses our teacher). But at his very moment of transformation and deployment, Moses hid his face. Why might Torah tell us this?

The 16th century kabbalist David ben Shlomo ibn Abi Zimra, the Radbaz – wrote that Moses hid because he already was wise. Born with a mystic’s wisdom, Moses hid his face because he knew that God would hide him in the cleft of a rock atop Sinai, to shield Moses from seeing a spiritual light too bright for human eyes. Maybe Moses also presaged what Elijah would do after hearing the “still small voice”: like Moses, Elijah also hid his face. Moses and Elijah knew that encountering God so directly can so challenge humanity that they hid their faces to keep themselves viable as human prophets, still able to walk this Earth and transmit some of that light to others. By shielding their vision, they engaged in a sort of inner defense not only for their own sake but also for the sake of heaven.

Another explanation imagines less a transcendently wise Moses than an immature Moses. For the 14th century Ba’al haTurim, Jacob ben Asher, Moses hid because he hadn’t yet purged the slave mentality of his people still in Egypt, the inner bondage that Moses himself carried inside him. Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote in Guide for the Perplexed that Moses feared the light: Moses didn’t yet know how to bask in such a glow. In Exodus Rabbah, Moses hid his face because he was “tiron,” a rookie prophet, unready for radiance.

So which is it – a mature Moses of spiritual mastery, or a rookie Moses learning the ropes? Where we stand often depends on where we sit: our answer may depend on what we ourselves need to see. As for me, maybe I need Moses to be a rookie prophet because I’m a rookie chaplain. If I hid my heart from my burning patient, maybe I need a rookie Moses hiding his face from the burning bush. Maybe I need Moses to tell God, “I’m slow, inadequate to how You would deploy me. Send someone else.”

And not just me. Tomorrow, ALEPH will ordain 12 of us as clergy. I’ll bet that, at one time or another, all 12 of us felt inadequate and unready: Send someone else.

And not just the 12 of us. Last summer, hundreds gathered right here to honor the memory of our beloved Reb Zalman. Repeatedly I heard veteran clergy – real luminaries among us – confide quietly, “I’m not the rabbi Zalman would want me to be. I feel like a fake. Send someone else.”

And not just clergy. Every life brings us moments of encounter – callings, challenges, loves and losses – that can feel so bright, so hot, that maybe unconsciously their power can feel like they’ll blow our circuits. In the heat of the moment, in the subtle places within that most animate us – we may shield ourselves from total encounter. In a sense, we hide our faces and turn away.

Thankfully, our story doesn’t end there. For Moses, hiding and turning away became the very stuff of his dialogue with God. Only after Moses shared with God his feeling of powerlessness did Moses get to see the miracles, building his capacity to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to “Let My people go.” Only after Moses shared his sense of inadequacy did God name Aaron as his partner, so Moses needn’t lead alone. Hiding and turning weren’t detours: they were the pivots for divine deployment. They were portals to empowerment that launched a whole new journey of liberation.

So even if hiding and turning were rookie moves, they also were necessary ones. Perhaps Torah tells of Moses hiding precisely to remind us that our own hiding – turning away and turning back – are precisely the way of spiritual life. As the prophet Ezekiel’s mystical vision saw chayot hakodesh (the holy beings) running to and fro, their ratzo v’shov, their ebb and flow, is a roadmap for spiritual life itself. Hiding and turning aren’t detours: they are the path. If hiding and turning are rookie moves, then truly all of us are rookies.

But this ratzo v’show – this ebb and flow, the hiding and re-emerging – only lead furthest forward when we understand our occasional Burning Bush impulses to hide and turn for what they really are. They are calls to pay attention. They are pointers to discern what triggers us to turn away. They are portals to do our own inner work around to heal our triggers. They are pivots to change direction.

When we hide and turn away, often we can’t turn back alone — and thankfully, we don’t have to. A mentor, spiritual director or wise friend can help us get out of our own way – to show us our twists and turns for what they are, to help us discern why we turned what inside us turned us away – and then to use it to turn back. Not even Moses did it alone: he had direct dialogue with God, the very best of spiritual directors. As Talmud puts it (Berakhot 5b):

אין חבוש מתיר עצמו מבית האסורים

The prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.

That is my hope for all of us – that each of us can grow free of our inner prisons by learning to see the twists and turns of life, especially the inner hiding that most confines, exactly for what they are. That all of us can lean into these turns with awareness and courage, with mentors and spiritual directors along the way to help focus, clarify and redirect us. With their help, may the inner impulses that impel us to hide and turn aside be transformed into levers that lift us into dialogue with God. In that merit, in the merit of those who walked before us, may each of us learn to bask ever more in the light that calls us forward – and in that way walk in the light of God.

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