Shemot: On experiencing the power of holy ground

Shemot

Exodus 1:1-6:1

Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-3

The parashah is majestic, riveting, full of power and grandeur. One can turn anywhere and find magnificent imagery, spellbinding narrative, language both familiar and thrilling. Still, the part of the story that calls out to me most powerfully is a single image in the midst of the burning bush story.

"Moses gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed…When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: `Moses! Moses!' He answered, `Here I am.' And God said, `Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground'" (Exodus 3:2-5).

The story, of course, is a miracle, a time of direct communication between God and Moses. It is the dramatic introduction to the Exodus narrative, a story unique to an extraordinary moment in Israelite history. Yet, one stream of traditional commentary encourages us to see the story as not so far away at all. Listen.

"It is taught in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), `Do not say that you will study Torah when you have the chance…' That is, you may think, when you are the midst of trouble and hard times, `When God improves my situation, then I'll have time to study Torah.' How do you know that when life is more expansive will be a better time to serve God? Perhaps it is precisely now, when you don't have a spare moment, that you are supposed to serve God. This is the meaning of the verse, `The place on which you stand is holy ground,' the situation that you find yourself in, even the hard times — that is holy ground. Perhaps God wants you to reach out precisely in times of suffering…and your reward will be as great your effort has been" (after the Hafetz Hayyim, as quoted in Itturei Torah, Vol. 3, Page 29).

I remember a time some years ago, as a brand new hospital chaplain, that I saw a woman leave the intensive care unit after her husband had died. Before leaving the hospital, she stopped back in the ICU waiting room, where she had held vigil for many days along with families of other patients, waiting, hoping, praying.

On her way out, she reached out, in her own grief, to offer comfort to another patient's loved one, hoping that that family would see their loved one through to health. Suddenly I wanted to take off my shoes. I saw it clearly: The place where I stood was holy ground.

This commentary tells that any place, any time in our lives, any situation in which we find ourselves, can be a holy place, a time when communication can open up between ourselves and the Divine, when our spirits will open wide to new understanding, new growth, new comfort and challenge. What makes the place holy, what makes the time godly, is how we respond to it.

For some, the foxhole is the best place to find God. For others, it is a time of deep gratitude, of blessing, of abundance, that opens the eyes and the soul to the presence of Spirit.

Who says that one situation is better suited than another to move us toward the spiritual work that we need to do? Perhaps it is a time of trial, of loss or suffering. Perhaps it is a time of joy. Perhaps it is a time of difficult decision-making, or a conflictual relationship in which we find ourselves. Any one of these can become the burning bush, the bit of reality that turns into holy ground, as soon as we pay close attention to the possibilities hidden within it.

Might the same even be true for the history of the Jewish people? Maybe, just maybe, a time in Jewish history full of sorrow and fear and fragmentation, like the one in which we find ourselves — perhaps even this time, this place, might be holy ground, a time from which blessing may flow. May it be so.