Two years ago, in early January, I spent ten days in a rural Mayan village in the Yucatan. I was there as part of a cohort of graduate students under the auspices of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and the trip was powerful, unsettling, and transformative. Before the trip we studied a piece of text during our orientation, one I had learned, been taught, and taught many times over the years. And after studying it with a new lens that AJWS placed on it, I will never be able to look at it the same way ever again.

In this week’s Torah reading, which begins Sefer Shemot (Exodus), we read the brief, characteristically dense narrative of Moses’ first encounter with the divine. In five short verses, the most unique relationship between God and a human being is established. And, if this were the entirety of the relationship – if the next four books of the Torah did not exist – we could still argue that Moses experienced God like no other person.

Exodus 3:2-6        
An angel of Adonai appeared to him in a fiery flame from within the bush. [Moses] saw and – behold – the bush was burning with fire; yet the bush was not consumed. And Moses said: Let me turn aside and watch this great sight; why is the bush not burning? Adonai saw that Moses turned aside to watch. God called out to Moses from within the bush and said, “Moses! Moses!” Moses responded: “I am here.” God said: “Do not step closer. Remove your shoes from your feet for this place, upon which you stand, it is holy ground.” God continued: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face for he was in awe of looking at God.

The obvious literary theme in the Hebrew is the repeated use of words with the letters ר and א that resonate throughout: vayeirra; vayar; ereh; hamareh; vayar; lirot; yarei. With the exception of the final word – meaning awe, or fear, the rest all refer to Moses’ and God’s seeing, beholding, or watching. In learning the text with the guidance of our AJWS facilitator, our attention was drawn to the appearance of another root, that appears only twice, which we easily overlook as we read through the text.

The key verse here, I came to understand, is: And Moses said: Let me turn aside and watch this great sight; why is the bush not burning?

Moses makes a conscious choice to step off the beaten path, to explore the unknown, to let his curiosity get the best of him. His seeing the burning bush is never in question; his paying attention to it, and allowing it to dramatically alter the course of his life, is the pivotal moment in his prophetic life. For the text continues: Adonai saw that Moses had turned aside to watch. Our interpretive imagination (and the Rabbis’) can run wild. Had other people seen the burning bush and not stepped aside? Had Moses been shown other divine signs and casually strolled by?

The message from AJWS was powerful and helpful for our group about to embark on a journey to a strange land: consciously taking the step away from the regular towards the unfamiliar is what allows us to see, to be transformed, and to have an impact on the world.
In a broader context, these brief verses teach us to live our lives thoughtfully and conscientiously. How much do we miss because we have neither the time nor the energy to step aside? Crucially, how do we bring a discerning eye, a values-driven eye, to the choices we make in the world, as human beings, members of families, professionals, Jews, members of communities, and members of the world?

This ability to discern, both within Jewish texts and as a tool with which to carry with us throughout our lives, is one of the outcomes of spending summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Perhaps as importantly, our choices to join the Ramah community reflect this same discernment, opting for a particular approach that empowers our campers and staff to be transformed and, in turn, to transform the world.

Much ink is spilled about Jewish leadership, and leadership in general. A significant section of this week’s Torah reading and part of next week’s is devoted to directly addressing the question of Moses’ leadership. Yet what is so often missed – indeed, what I missed for years while reading these five verses – is the nearly hidden message that is the text’s clear answer to the question of Why Moses?

He had the audacity, the courage, and the patience to step away and pay attention.

Shabbat Shalom.