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Chanukah: Why Do We Celebrate?
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I don't know about you, but it reminds me of the burning bush. There's a bush that's burning, burning for hours and it's not being consumed. Centuries later, there's oil burning, burning for hours, days, but it's not being consumed either. You know, if you consider Chanukah the last great miracle in our National history that we commemorate by means of a holiday, what would be our first great national miracle? It'll probably be the burning bush. That's the beginning of the redemption from Egypt that gives rise to our birth as a people. So, it's almost like we have these bookends in our history. Burning bush, Chanukah. Could the burning bush hold a key to understanding the meaning of the oil.
Okay, let's read through the first few verses of the burning bush story together, and kind of see what's going on. It begins here: Moshe hayah roeh et-tzon Yitro choteno kohen Midyan. So Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law, Yitro. Vayinhag et-hatzon achar hamidbar, so he leads the sheep through the desert; vayavo el-har haElokim chorevah, and he comes to the mountain of God, to Horeb. Let's just stop right there for a moment. What's a little bit odd about that description, that verse?
You have no idea what the text is telling you here. What do you mean he came to the mountain of God, Horeb? What is it that makes this the mountain of God? I mean, it's true that if you've already read through the entire Torah, you know what happens later. You know that Revelation happens at Mount Sinai, and you know later on in the Torah, that Sinai - this mountain, is identified with Mount Horeb; that these are one and the same mountains. Then, you would know in retrospect that when Moses came to this mountain at the burning bush, the mountain Horeb, he was coming to the mountain of God.
If you are just reading through the first couple of chapters of Exodus, and you get to the story of the burning bush, and you haven't gotten yet to Revelation, you have no idea what this is talking about. What do you mean this is the mountain of God? What's so special? This is a mountain, it happens to be named Horeb. What do you mean it's the mountain of God?
That's question number 1; let's keep on reading.
So, an angel appears to Moses, belabat-esh mitoch hasneh, in flames, from the midst of the bush. Vayar, and Moses sees, vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu uchal, he sees the bush burning with fire; but the bush isn't being consumed. Vayomer Moshe, and Moses says, asurah-na ve’ereh et-hamareh hagadol hazeh. Moses says, "Gee! Let me take a look at this, a remarkable thing. Madua lo-yivar hasneh, how come that bush isn't burning?" Vayar Hashem ki sar lirot, then God sees, and Moses's turned to look at the bush. Vayikra elav Elokim mitoch hasneh vayomer Moshe Moshe -- vayomer hineni, and God calls out to him amidst the bush and says, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses says, "Here I am."
So, here's the next strange thing in this narrative. Why do I need all of this? Isn't all of this, or most of this, kind of strenuous description? I mean, what if we just took out this entire verse and a half section? What if we read it like this? So, there's this burning bush, vayar vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu uchal, Moses sees and he sees there's this bush, and it's burning with fire; and the bush isn't being consumed. And at that point, vayikra elav Elokim mitoch hasneh, God called out to him from the bush and said, "Moses! Moses! Vayomer hineni." Moses answered, "Here I am." What is all this extraneous detail about Moses talking to himself about this remarkable thing? About God seeing that he is pausing to look. Why is all that important?
Vayar Hashem ki sar lirot, God saw that he has stopped to look. That's important. It implies that if God didn't see that Moses stopped to look, then maybe the story would have been different. Maybe Moses wouldn't have been chosen. There's something about Moses stopping to look, something about Moses saying, "Gee! Isn't this remarkable?" Something about God perceiving that Moses stopping to look, which is crucial to the story. The story doesn't happen without that.
Let's pull back the zoom lens for a moment and ask this. What do we know about Moses, before he is selected at the burning bush? At the burning bush, God comes out of the blue and says, "I've got a job for you. I want you to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt." What do we know about Moses before that point?
Everything we know about him is relevant. We know that he was born to Jewish parents, but
raised by princess of Egypt in the palace. We know he had a fateful choice to make. We know that he went out when he didn't have to, to look and see the lot of his brothers being enslaved. We know he chose to identify with them, with their suffering. We know that he took the side of those he view of being oppressed. He risked his life to save the Jew being struck of a taskmaster. He risked himself again when he finds one Jew hitting another. He risks himself a third time when he saves the daughters of Yitro from being bullied by other shepherd. All of that is important. The Torah is telling us, without telling us overtly; why it was Moses was chosen. He was chosen because of these things. He wasn't just a shepherd who cared for defenseless sheep; he cared for defenseless people. All of these is important to who he was as a leader. But the last thing important about it, is that he stopped to notice the burning bush. He said, "Isn't this remarkable?" And God saw that, and it was the last thing that happens before God says, "I have a job for you."
Is the Torah implying to us that this was the clincher. This was the last event, the last happening that made Moses right for this job. And if so, what was so special about noticing the bush? Everyone can notice the bush; it was a miracle, right? Now, somehow, it wasn't such an obvious miracle. Just like the lights of the oil wasn't such an obvious miracle; which makes it all the stranger, right? I mean, if you were God, and you wanted to call out to Moses at this big, dramatic moment of history, wouldn't you make a big miracle?
I mean, think how badly God's first conversation with Moses goes. God says, "I have a job for you." Moses says, "No, you don't." God says, "No, I really want you to lead the Jewish people." Moses says, "I'm telling you God, you have the wrong guy. I'm totally not the one you want." And they go back and forth like this; God says, "No, I'm telling you it's you." Moses, "No! I'm really not made for this." I mean, the story ends badly. God finally becomes angry with Moses and says, "Look, I'm not listening to you anymore. You're just doing this."
Maybe it would have gone better, if God made an impressive miracle to begin with. Now, if He really wanted to get Moses's attention, something like - forgive me - remember that sinful Wizard of Oz? The wicked witch riding Dorothy's name smoked from a broom in the sky? I mean, that got her attention. What about lightning that sears a message into rock? "Moses, I need you. Love, God."
Any of these would have been very, very impressive. It's hard to notice a bush that's burning and not being consumed. It's hard to notice oil that's burning and not being consumed. What secret lies in these two hard to notice miracles?
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