Someone once told me, “If there is a God, then certainly he is much too busy with wars and everything to care whether you eat kosher food.”
This is interesting, but it is not what I believe about Hashem.
Many more people say, “There is no God, because if there was, he wouldn’t allow ____ to suffer.” With the blank being whoever in the world is currently suffering, whether it is Yezidis or Tibetans or Sudanese, or, in this week’s parsha, us.
But this week’s parsha tells us he did indeed allow us to suffer. It says that, right there in the pshat.
For years, and years, and years, we suffered as slaves. Some say until we cried out, until we begged him in exactly the right way. But as a parent, this feels petty to me. Sure, sometimes I make my kids apologize “properly” – no sarcasm allowed. But I’d like to think Hashem is a lot less petty than me.
My friend Nina pointed out that twice, Moshe calls Hashem on this, face to face. Asking Hashem what kind of God he is that he’s doing this to his treasured people. I think I’m paraphrasing.
But Hashem is telling Yosef right there exactly what kind of God he is. He’s the God who appears in a thornbush. Not only appears – we know the thornbush is not just incidental, like the desert equivalent of a coffee shop where it was convenient for Hashem to meet up with Moshe while he was out shepherding.
The thornbush, it turns out, is crucial to understanding who Hashem is. Later on, in Devarim, the Torah refers to Hashem as שֹׁכְנִי סְנֶה, shochni sneh, “the One who dwells in the thornbush.” This is actually part of Hashem’s identity.
And the root of that word, שכן, shachein, is important. It’s the same word Hashem tells us when it’s time to build the Mishkan, as we’ll read in a couple of weeks: וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם. “Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.”
Which is a little strange. If Hashemcan dwell in a dusty, prickly thornbush, then why does he need us to build him the most beautiful place of worship ever known? Why can’t we just – I don’t know – uproot the thornbush and daven there, saving us all a lot of time, money and old-fashioned tzuris?
As we read through the exacting details of the building of the mishkan in a few weeks, it’s tempting to ask ourselves, again and again, why does Hashem care so much about every single detail, every silver socket, every thread of gold?
Hashem cares because he wants us to care, to build, to participate. The mishkan, of course, is more for us than for him. He wants us to redeem ourselves from darkness and despair, from the thornbush to the glorious Bais Hamikdash.
To understand this, we need to look at where this whole story happens, exactly where Hashem delivers his revelation to Moshe in the burning bush in this week’s parsha.
We’re told that it’s the “mountain of God – Chorev.” Later on, an even greater revelation took place at Chorev – the giving of the Torah. It’s called Har Sinai, but many sources identify it as either the same mountain as Chorev or a different summit of the same basic hill (which is interesting in itself).
When Hashem reveals himself at matan Torah, it isn’t nearly so humble. There’s thunder and lightning, it’s an awesome spectacle that all of bnei Yisrael watched from afar.
The differences between these two revelations, and these two dwellings, gives us a flash of insight into what kind of God Hashem is.
What’s the difference between the revelation at Chorev and the revelation at Sinai (whether or not they are one and the same place)? One is low and humble, the other is great and glorious.
What’s the difference between Hashem’s dwelling place in the bush and his dwelling place in the mishkan? Basically, the same thing. The bush is low, humble, even humiliating, and the other, we’re told, is the most beautiful sight human eyes have ever beheld.
If we remember that Hashem doesn’t change between these two revelations, then it becomes clear that the only thing that’s different between the two… is us.
At the burning bush, bnei Yisrael are subjugated, we’re slaves. Physically, we’re crying out and suffering, but spiritually, we are also suffering, having reached the lowest possible level of tumah without losing ourselves altogether. And while we are suffering, Hashem is suffering, too.
Midrash Rabba on this week’s parsha says bnei Yisrael and Hashem are not just close, we are twins. When one is in pain, the other feels it. While bnei Yisrael are suffering in Mitzrayim, Hashem lowers himself (gingerly, I’d imagine) into the most ugly, prickly, base home he can find – a thornbush.
It says in Tehillim, “עמו אנכי בצרה”, imo anochi betzara, “I am with him in his distress.” This doesn’t mean only that Hashem hears our suffering, or that he knows about our suffering. This isn’t something he’s reading in a newspaper. This is something he is experiencing right along with us.
That’s the kind of God Hashem is. Our partner, our twin.
What about the revelation at matan Torah? What about that great, glorious home, the mishkan where Hashem came to live with us?
When bnei Yisrael are all together, experiencing true achdus, then Hashem’s glory is at its greatest, its most beautiful, its most wondrous.
And what was at the heart of that glorious mishkan? The aron, and on top of it, the kruvim – twins with the faces of angels. When bnei Yisrael are following the mitzvos, close to Hashem, the kruvim face each other, and some say even embrace; when bnei Yisrael wander off to follow their own inclinations, the kruvim face outward.
And just to make this completely awesome, the mazal, star sign, of the month of Sivan, in which we received the Torah at Har Sinai, the time of our greatest closeness to Hashem ever? Yup, it’s te’omim, Gemini, the twins.
We have created many images, many metaphors over the years to help us understand Hashem. Father… king… husband… even mother… and these are all true and they are all helpful. But when bnei Yisrael are suffering, and later, when we are redeemed, we have to realize that he is a twin, the nearest thing to ourselves, and he is experiencing our agonies and our joys right alongside us.
Which explains the thing about the wars, I think. Yes, there are wars in the world and lots going on and I suppose it’s true that Hashem is busy and has lots to think about. Don’t we all? But if my sister, say, or one of my children, or my mother, or someone else I am close with was going through something terrible, my whole world would screech to a halt.
When bnei Yisrael suffer, Hashem’s world screeches to a halt and the thornbush tells us he is there with us in our suffering.
This week was my father’s seventh yahrzeit. Which is terrible, because honestly, I feel like he was just here a minute ago. Given that I have an eight-year-old, and he said goodbye to a baby, that’s a long time ago. To Gavriel Zev, a lifetime.
But I am grateful for the blessing of the years we had together before it all screeched to a halt.
In Paroh’s dream in last week’s parsha, he dreams of seven good years and seven bad years – but my father and I had many more than seven good years together. He was an extra father to my older kids; he was a mentor to me and a rock to my mother in good ways and bad ways.
My father was not here just a minute ago.
He has been gone for a long time now, and I no longer turn my head each time I hear a bicycle bell, and my younger kids will never remember him, which is a whole thornbush full of sadness.
I wish I could bring him here, just for a moment. I wish we could have stood in Israel together. I wish he could see the amazing children those babies have grown into, the amazing adults the children he knew are becoming.
But as he told me years ago, “you can’t always get what you want.” Yes, he was quoting the Rolling Stones, and yes, I was going through a tough time, and got angry at him for not helping me out. He knew I’d land on my feet somehow, even I didn’t see how at the time.
And this, I think, is also a little like Hashem, who takes a very long view of history. Yes, he is there; he sees, he knows, he feels our pain. If he doesn’t step in and intervene right away, it’s not because he’s “too busy” or not paying attention.
There is a mishna that says that the shechinah, Hashem’s presence, the God of the thornbush and also of the mishkan, is also present when a person is gravely ill. This changes how we must behave around that person. There are very serious rules about how to conduct yourself in this person’s presence, because while these are metaphors, that doesn’t mean they are not also true.
And so, when Hashem says he is with us in our pain, we must take his word for it. We must allow this idea to comfort and guide us through the pain to move on, to live on, to not sink into darkness and despair but instead, rise up and join him in the work of redeeming ourselves through holy lives, fulfilling the will of Hashem… who dwells in the thornbush.
[original burning bush art by Elizabeth Wang available here]