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Rethinking the Amidah:Standing Like Moshe at the Burning Bush . Parashat Shemot 5783

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Our most fundamental prayer, the Amidah, doesn’t mention Moshe by name. But the scene of Moshe at the burning bush is one of the central images of the Amidah’s first blessing. How does Moshe’s subtle presence change how we might experience the opening of the Amidah?

The blessing known as Avot1—ancestors—opens with the words:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ וֵאלֹקֵי אֲבותֵינוּ אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹקֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקב.

Blessed are You, YHVH, our God and God of our ancestors God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov

Normally, in Jewish prayer, if a sentence begins with the words “Blessed are You, YHVH, our God” we expect the next words to be: “King of the universe.”2 But instead of “King of the universe” we say “and God of our ancestors.” This shift from the expected mention of “King of the universe” makes us pause and pay attention to the unexpected words that follow: “and God of our ancestors.”

What is the significance of this shift? It is meant to draw us to the narrative of the burning bush, where this phrase appears. This is illustrated by the following midrash:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל, מסכתא דפסחא טז

ומנין שאומרים ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב שנאמר ויאמר עוד אלקים אל משה כה תאמר אל בני ישראל ה' אלקי אבותיכם אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב (שמות ג טו)

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Bo, Pisha 16 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 60) What is the scriptural source for saying [in the Amidah]: “Blessed are You, YHVH, our God and God of our ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov?” As it says (Exodus 3:15): “God said further to Moshe: ‘Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: “YHVH, God of your ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov…’”

This midrash connects the phrase in our Amidah—beginning with “v’elohei avoteinu” to the verse in Exodus 3:15 that begins “YHVH the God of your ancestors (elohei avoteikhem),” illustrated in this table:

אלקי אבותיכם אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב

ואלקי אבותינו אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב

The midrash draws a connection—almost a hyperlink—between the Amidah and this section of the Torah, where God speaks to Moshe at the burning bush. In fact, in that scene (Exodus 3:1-4:5) the phrase “God of your/their ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov” appears three times (3:6, 15; 4:5). This phrase appears nowhere else in the Torah. The Amidah could have said “God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov,” without repeating “God of,” as in I Kings 18:36.3 But by choosing to repeat “God of” three times in the Amidah, the author of the prayer suggests that the scene of the burning bush is the image that stands behind the first distinctive moment of the Amidah.

When Moshe is 80 years old, working as a shepherd in Midian, God encounters him at the burning bush. After calling out Moshe’s name, God speaks to Moshe with the very words adopted by our blessing:

שמות ג:ה-ו וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם שַׁל נְעָלֶיךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת קֹדֶשׁ הוּא: וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹקֵי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה פָּנָיו כִּי יָרֵא מֵהַבִּיט אֶל הָאֱלֹקִים:

Exodus 3:5-6 [God] said, “Do not come closer. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. [God] said: “I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov.” Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

By quoting the scene of Moshe at the burning bush, the Amidah offers a host of new associations that widen our understanding of the prayer. Indeed, with this link, we can interpret and experience these lines of our Amidah quite differently.

One shift is the speaker of this line: in the Amidah, we, the worshipers, seem to be describing God as “God of our ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, and God of Ya’akov.” But in the biblical narrative, it is God who is speaking to Moshe. Connecting this fact to our prayer, we now have a very different orientation to the beginning of the Amidah. We start out not by speaking, but by listening. God is calling to us, like God called to Moshe at that very first moment of encounter. What might we hear—not just say—in this moment of prayer?

In addition, God is sharing new information with Moshe: Moshe is descended from Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. These are his ancestors. This is news to Moshe because he is, perhaps, unsure where he comes from. Amram is Moshe’s birth father, but he has never had a recorded conversation with him, and they are separated when Moshe is still a baby.4 Moshe grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, and perhaps Moshe sees Pharaoh as his real father figure.5 For most of his life, Moshe might see Yitro as his adopted father—the one whose family he marries into. Now, however, God is reminding Moshe about his real lineage: Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. For us as worshipers, this may be a helpful reminder for our own connection to our past. To what extent are we ignorant or even alienated from our ancestry? How often do we adopt the surrounding culture as our assumed heritage, without connecting to our authentic, yet sometimes suppressed, origin stories? This line may remind us that reconnecting to our past—even after years of estrangement—is possible.

This scene also helps us connect the Amidah to an intense, and new, personal encounter with God. The very first words that Moshe hears from God, after his own name, are the words quoted in the Amidah. Indeed, there is a connection between the burning bush (sneh) and the revelation on Sinai:

פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) ג:ב

סנה. על שהיה עתיד ליתן תורה לישראל מהר סיני

Lekah Tov Shemot 3:2, ed. Buber, p. 8b6

Sneh”: On account that in the future [God] would give Torah to Israel from Mount Sinai.

This midrashic tradition picks up on the linguistic similarity between the word sneh, translated as “bush,” and Sinai, the mountain on which God gave the Torah.7 This moment is a precursor of the larger revelation. Sinai was God’s moment of revelation to the entire people, but the burning bush (sneh) was the individual revelation. This might allow us to ask: in what way is God revealed to me personally through the Amidah I am about to recite?

Finally, in the story of Moshe’s life, this moment of revelation comes at a time when he is quite removed from his people. Moshe had run away from the Jewish people decades earlier, married the daughter of a Midianite priest, and become a shepherd in a land far from the center of the Jewish story. But this is the moment when God invites Moshe back into the main narrative. Of course, Moshe is reluctant to come back in. Moshe’s first response to God’s introduction is:

שמות ג:יא

מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃

Exodus 3:11

Who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and take out the people of Israel from Egypt?

This reaction is also coupled with a lack of ability to speak. “Moshe said: ‘What shall I say to them?’” (v. 13) and later in the dialogue (4:10): “I am not a man of words.”8 The doubt expressed by Moshe might also be familiar to the worshiper of the Amidah. Perhaps I have a mission in life, but I am not ready to accept it. This allows the Amidah to also be a moment of self-reflection. Am I prepared to enter into the main story of my life? Or do I want to remain the proverbial shepherd in Midian, far from my life’s purpose? It is hard to change course in life to refocus our energies, even if it was why we were put on earth. Nevertheless, the Amidah can remind us of the potential we have to change and to accept the mission of our life. Understanding that the scene of Moshe at the burning bush stands behind the beginning of our Amidah opens up a wealth of interpretive possibilities: I am listening, and not just speaking, to God. I am connecting to my past in new ways. I have an invitation to step into the mission of my life. Will I move forward or resist? Sometimes, as I recite the Amidah, I imagine myself in the shoes of Moshe at the burning bush. I allow myself to be transported by these words to consider these questions in prayer. For me, this offers new meaning to well-worn words, and an opportunity to recognize the power of the textual links embedded in our Siddur.

Shabbat shalom.

1 See Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5.

2 Indeed, in Talmud Bavli Berakhot 40b, R. Yohanan states that any blessing without mentioning God as king is not a blessing. Certain authorities have tried to solve this dilemma as it relates to the Amidah, and some point to the word “king” toward the end of the blessing. See Tur OH 113; R”I bar Yakar, ed. Yerushalmi, p. 35; R. David Abudraham, ed. Braun, p. 64.

3 The repetition of the words “God of” in our phrase has also been explained in another way: each of the patriarchs had their own relationship with God, and one cannot rely on one’s parents’ relationship with God in order to forge our own connection. See Responsa of R. Meir Eisenstadt (1670-1744), Shu”t Panim Me’irot 1:39; R. Abraham Isaac Kook, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1996), vol. 1, p. 269. Solomon Schechter is also quoted as saying: “You cannot love God with your father’s heart.”

4 According to one midrash (Talmud Bavli Sotah 12a), Amram has to be convinced by Miriam even to have children at all; Amram is not a willing father.

5 Moshe might be aware that the Israelites are his brothers; see Exodus 2:11. However, it is the narrator, not Moshe, who identifies them as “his brothers”; we do not know if Moshe understands this to be the case.

6 See also Ibn Ezra to Exodus 3:2; Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 14 and Meir Zvi Rabinowitz, Mahzor Piyyyutei R. Yannai, (Tel Aviv: Mossad Bialik, 1987), vol. 1, p. 272: “על הסנה בלהבים / ועל סיני בלפידים.”

7 Indeed, it is likely that the Torah itself sees these two mountains, both called “Mountain of God” (compare Exodus 3:1 to 24:13), as the same. See Sifrei Devarim #22, p. 33; Shemot Rabbah 2:4, ed. Shinan, p. 110.

8 This lack of confidence in speaking may also relate to our position as worshiper. How are we supposed to speak to God in prayer? Communicating in general is difficult, and all the more so to the Divine! But this scene offers us some hope: God wants to hear our words, even if we may falter in speaking, like Moshe. Prayer is not reserved for those with perfect expressive ability. My thanks to my colleague, R. Shai Held, for this perspective.

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