A Burning Distraction

It seems that everyone has something to say about turning 50 – those who’ve been there, and those who observe from afar. Magazines, movies and mavens talk about how our weight gets redistributed, our marathon times slow down, and our memory becomes fuzzy. Others talk about how life only gets started at 50.  Having crossed the threshold just three days ago, I have to say while I’m still pretty ok with my running times, my cravings for chocolate need some taming.  But there’s one source about turning 50 which speaks to the deeper transitions I’m experiencing. If only I could remember it… 

The Torah teaches that the Levi’im who served in the ancient sanctuary alongside the Kohanim, singing psalms and helping out with sacrifices, worked only until the age of 50. The mystical text of the Zohar suggests that they retired from active duty because their voices lost luster and their inner passion waned. But drawing on the Talmudic notion that 50 is the age of counsel, medieval Jewish commentators explained that these older Levi’im would stop doing the heavy lifting to focus their attention on offering guidance and advice to their fellow Levi’im. Indeed, the Meiri explained that by the age of 50 people meet two prerequisites for sharing wisdom with others: we’ve lived long enough to have truly experienced life, and by then we’ve understood something of life’s mysteries and complexities.

I’m deeply grateful for my life and blessings, though I don’t know that I have any unique wisdom to share. Contrary to the Zohar, I do feel capable and motivated to keep working hard to help people ask the questions I believe are most worth asking and explore the ideas I believe are most worth considering in pursuit of a meaningful life and a robust Jewish identity. 

The people I definitely do feel responsible to and capable of imparting whatever insight I’ve gained over these last five decades are my four children – Natan, Aaron, Isaac and Nomi. To celebrate my 50th birthday, I saved my shekels and took them, together with Andi, to a most spectacular classroom – to the mountains of Patagonia -- to share some of what I think of as life’s most sacred Torah, in particular a teaching that emerges from this very week’s parashah, Shemot. 

Commentators seeking the deeper message of a tree on fire that wasn’t consumed have mined our parashah’s iconic scene of Moshe encountering a burning bush in the wilderness. Some see in it God’s manifestation of Divine power and presence to assure Moshe of the authenticity of the call to lead B’nai Yisrael out of Egypt. Others see it as a symbol of the Israelites’ ability to endure the harsh Egyptian oppression, and our people’s ability to survive the ongoing fires of persecution that would burn throughout history. Some see in it the Torah’s imperviousness to the assaults of rejection, criticism or assimilation. Some see in it the message that there is no place or thing devoid of holiness, not even a lowly bush. 

Some dismiss any miraculous features of the phenomenon noting that there are, in fact, species of trees that burn much more slowly, and focus instead on Moshe’s response to the burning bush as evidence of his capacity for compassionate, courageous leadership. It’s this insight I wanted to share with my kids, not only at this moment of my own life story, but at this moment in our collective narrative. 

Moshe gazed at the site of the burning bush.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה׃

Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

 וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

When Hashem that he had turned aside to look, Hashem called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”

It’s not the particulars of this specific natural wonder of a bush on fire that we’re meant to learn from, but the fact that Moshe stopped to look and investigate it. 

 אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה.

I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight.

It was Moshe’s capacity to be arrested by something unusual, to be distracted from his daily tasks by something different, to inquire after something that begged explanation, that moved God to call out to him and engage him in the sacred task of leading his people out of slavery.


וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים

When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush.

Most of us who are blessed to be parents or to be mentors to children and young adults do what we can to sensitize our kids to the ongoing troubles and injustices that plague our world. We talk the talk of tikkun olam and walk the walk of serving in soup kitchens, marching for racial and gender equality or immigration reform, giving blood and planting trees in Israel. But it can become physically exhausting, and worse, morally numbing, to be faced with what has come to feel like an endless onslaught of inequality and discrimination, the fraying of our societal and political bonds, the degradation of public service, the instability of our planet, not to mention the intractable conflicts in Israel and Middle East and other global threats.

What worries me isn’t just that, to our children and grandchildren today, the solutions to our problems seem so elusive. What worries me isn’t just that, depleted and frustrated, the next generation may abdicate their responsibility to help heal humanity’s pain. What worries me is the risk that they will stop noticing; that they will stop paying attention; that they won’t turn aside to look more deeply and ask

הַזֶּ֑ה  מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה -“what is this all about? What’s going on here?” And that they won’t hear the voice that emerges, calling them to serve, to engage, to lead. And that they’ll forget their line, “Hineni - I’m here.” 

It’s reasonable to ask why, if the goal was to motivate Moshe to lead us out of slavery, God didn’t approach him with another scene of Egyptian cruelty or Israelite suffering which prompted Moshe’s initial moral outrage – slaying the Egyptian taskmaster – and led him to flee to the wilderness in the first place? Why present him with an unusual tree as trigger for social action? What’s the connection between the wonders of nature and the human capacity for empathy and compassion? How does immense natural beauty move us to consider our place in the universe and our responsibilities to one another?

Whether hiking in the gorgeous Palisades across the Hudson River or the spectacular Chilean landscape from which we just returned, I can at least report that it does, and I’m certain many of you can concur. As we climbed the almost 3000 meters to the base of the famous granite towers in Torres del Paine National Park, first dubbed “Cleopatra’s Needles” by Lady Florence Dixie in 1880, or traversed the Osorno volcano’s Desolation Trail in northern Patagonia culminating at a huge lake so serene and pure we felt we ourselves had discovered it (in fact the Jesuits got there first long ago), or hiked the majestic Andes in the Maipo Canyon outside of Santiago, the scenery both took my breath away and, to borrow a Shabbat term, “vayinafash” – made me feel en-souled in a fresh, new way. 

My gaze would wander from the mesmerizing views before me, to my precious children hiking and chatting around me, to my questions and reflections deep inside me. Sheer gratitude for the opportunity to see the world’s magnificence would be followed by profound thanks for my precious family and the love and affection that bind us. And then the questions would start, almost reversing the flow of my thoughts: 

Are we taking the best care of each other, and of ourselves, that we can? What parts of our relationships need greater attention or sensitivity? Are my friendships thriving as they should be? Can I be more attuned to people as a rabbi and leader? Am I making the most valuable contributions to my community as possible? Are there places I’m needed where I haven’t yet shown up?

Invariably my thoughts would be interrupted by the presence of a fellow hiker or guide, allowing for some moments of unusual intimacy with a stranger on a similar journey, sharing insights into who we are, where’ve we come from, and what we’re seeking. 

Gazing outward once again, the scenery would move me with Kotzker-like wonder. My worries and insecurities felt so insignificant against this backdrop; I am just dust and ashes. But wait, I’d say to no one, as I conquered another section of the trail, was this all really made for me? For us? Am I worthy? Are we, as a civilization, worthy of such a shockingly beautiful place to experience the sanctity, complexity and depth of human existence?

My kids and I spoke at length about these connections between natural wonder and social responsibility, between burning bushes and freedom from slavery. We reflected on how out in the wilderness, we come to see the interconnectedness of nature’s various systems: glaciers, lakes, mountains, plains, animals, people, plants, food, water, energy. We, who spend most of our time pursuing our own personal destinies, goals and dreams, are humbly reminded by the balance within our natural environment how deeply dependent all forms of life are upon one another. 

We also noted how in nature, every organism has its role to play in maintaining the equilibrium of the ecosystem. For it all to work, each creation has to have the chance to fulfill its own tasks and experience its own power. Yet, in our social environments shaped by politics, money and power, there are those who often deny others their opportunity to fulfill their own potential, whether by withholding health insurance, education, employment, or restricting immigration. We play as if it’s a zero-sum game where if one wins the other loses. The wilderness reminds us of how crucial one person’s success is to another’s ultimate wellbeing.

But for nature to teach us these lessons, we have to be awake and alert when we immerse ourselves in her wondrous beauty. We have to hike or walk or run or gaze with our eyes wide open, our hearts expansive and prepared. We have to have the capacity, like Moshe, to be arrested by something unusual, to be distracted from our daily tasks by something different, to inquire after something that begs explanation. And we have to be ready for the call to be present, to engage. We have to listen for our line, “Hineni”.

Rabbi Heschel credited his lifelong spiritual attunement to his capacity to be forever surprised by life: riveted by its beauty, delighted by its sweetness, bewildered by its mystery, and shocked by its pain. While there may be many ways to keep our capacity for awe toned and in shape, the Torah seems to be telling us, and I wholeheartedly agree, that taking ourselves out into the world’s primal, natural settings just may be one of the most effective, and the most beautiful.

My prayer on this Shabbat which follows 24 hours of rerouted travel on three flights up and across the continent instead of a direct one due to the weather here -- on this culmination of a two week adventure with my family in one of earth’s most exquisite sanctuaries, an adventure during which I crossed over a threshold that deepened my Jewish responsibility to share with my children, and with those whom I’m privileged to learn and teach, whatever insights my 50 years have gifted me – my prayer is that the lessons of the wilderness will not be lost on us. That we will carry forward our ability to be amazed by the world – by it’s mystifying combination of artistry and agony – and to respond.

When Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch lay on his deathbed crying, he asked to be taken to Switzerland. Confused, his students tried to assuage what they thought was their great teacher’s fears of meeting God and being judged spiritually inadequate. He rebuked them saying, “I’m not afraid of that. I’m afraid of meeting God and God saying to me, ‘How could you have been alive all this time and never once gone to see my Alps?!’’

My resolution upon reaching this milestone birthday – my hope and prayer – is to see as much of our wondrous world as possible, to turn aside and look at as many burning bushes as possible, and to learn and heed their lessons. After all, the most important part of any journey isn’t the destination, but the arrival back home, transformed and inspired to live worthy lives of purpose, of meaning

Shabbat Shalom.