Jewish Journal

Accepting Paradox

Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

by Michael Gotlieb

Posted on Jan. 18, 2001 at 7:00 pm

After killing an Egyptian taskmaster for nearly beating to death an Israelite slave, Moses, who is introduced in this week's Torah portion, flees for his life. Like so many biblical figures, he escapes to the desert. While there, he encounters something that defies nature: a bush on fire, unconsumed by the flames. As the narrative continues, Moses approaches the bush to examine it more closely. From within its midst, he hears a voice commanding him to remove his shoes, as the site on which he is standing is holy -- further emphasizing the story's importance.

Most Jewish sources see the significance of the burning bush as a manifestation of God. That it is on fire illustrates an important tension between both God's immediacy and God's inapproachability, as if to say, "Stand too close to the Divine and you will be consumed; too far and you will remove yourself from God's warmth." Another interpretation views the burning bush as a symbol of Israelite life under Egyptian rule. It offers insight into what will eventually happen. In the same way the bush is unaffected by the fire and survives, so too the people Israel will overcome its enslavement and survive.

Significantly, Moses receives his charge to lead the Jewish people as the result of his experience at the burning bush. Like everything else in the Torah, however, the image conveyed by that encounter serves a deeper purpose. It gives a clear understanding into the type of man Moses was. At the outset of his mission, he is presented with a mystifying dilemma. He sees something engulfed in flames that, at the same time, is left intact and unscathed. To his credit, he handles the discrepancy with great sophistication, displaying an uncanny ability to embrace paradox. No doubt Moses knew that to become God's servant, he would repeatedly witness paradoxical encounters and conflicting opinions, particularly when dealing with his own people.

Like Moses, our teacher, in order for us to become God's servant, we too must be willing to embrace paradox. Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a rare voice of reason and balance within the Jewish world, summed it up best when he wrote: "God may have had his own reasons for denying us certainty with regard to his existence and nature. One reason apparent to us is that man's certainty with regard to anything is poison to his soul." Moses understood that. He knew that theological uncertainty is the hallmark of a deeply religious, humble person. He knew that both convergent and competitive ideas, when incorporated into one's life, could enrich a person's soul.

So as we learn from Moses' five books, let us integrate a similar approach, one that Moses himself would advocate -- one that accepts paradox. After all is said, Judaism thrives when paradoxical ideas are seriously considered and embraced. For a Jew to think there is only one way in which to understand God and our great religious tradition is itself a contradiction.

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