Alison Dollow's D'var Torah
Saturday 14th January 2023
The Torah says: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight - why doesn’t the bush burn up? 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 He said, do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground”
Two nights ago, I was at a shiva at a synagogue in North West London, and speaking to the Emeritus Rabbi, Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein, following the service. I have a good relationship with him as he has known me since I was a small child and taught me through Cheder and beyond. I wanted his opinion on an idea I had for this D’var Torah, so began to discuss with him the parasha of this week. He told me about the midrash of Moses only seeing the back of God’s head, with the tefillin chords spelling out the word Israel. Then he asked me what time of day did I think Moses’s encounter with God would have happened, for tending sheep generally happened after dark to ensure that they were all safe from predators. It doesn’t actually say in the parsha what time it was - we have always just assumed. This was a very good point and one that I will look into at some point in the future. When I told him of my idea, he was a little bit nonplussed but said I should go for it and see where my thoughts took me.
I was musing on the way home about a midrash saying God was calling to Moses before the bush was burning, but Moses was so preoccupied with his own thoughts he didn’t hear. God set the bush on fire to get Moses’s attention. The bush miraculously was on fire but not consumed by the flames. Which set me thinking, was the bush really burning. Was it spontaneous combustion, or just a figment of Moses’s imagination? Was he on the biggest trip ever? I was gratified to see that I am not the only person over time who has thought along these lines.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the bush itself. The Hebrew word used, sneh, is a very rare word - it only appears in the Torah twice and both times it’s describing the burning bush. Most commentators say the sneh is a very lowly thornbush. A couple of researchers have said that, perhaps it is a species that is well known to give off noxious gases that act as an hallucinogenic. Indeed, Rabbi Peter Tobias, former Rabbi of the Liberal Synagogue in Elstree, explains that Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had said the explanation for Moses’s experience in the wilderness was that he was under the influence of an extract from an acacia tree that altered his perception of time. This made him believe that God was speaking to him through the burning bush. According to another source, Joe Schwarez, on www.mcgill.ca, the Dictamnus albus plant, found throughout northern Africa could be the burning bush. In the summer, the plant, also known as the ‘gas plant’, gives off a variety of volatile oils that can catch fire easily and may give the impression the plant is on fire.
This theory, that Moses was high on drugs rather than actually encountering God is as good a theory as any! Drugs, as we know, are everywhere, including within sport, including my own, and that of my late father’s - the sport of cycling. Unfortunately, professional cycling has been in the spot-light for a number of years for having ‘dirty champions’, the most prolific user being Lance Armstrong, 7 times winner of The Tour de France. Once he was ‘outed’, he was stripped of all the titles and was sent off into the wilderness (pun intended) …… Although there have been a couple of high profile professional cyclists seen as dirty, the most recent being Nairo Quintana last year, having allegedly been found positive for taking the banned substance tramadol and has been let go from his World Tour contract with his team, cycling is in the forefront of ensuring our professionals stick to the rules. British Cycling, UK Anti-Doping and the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale or International Cycling Union, which is the world governing body for sports cycling and oversees international competitive cycling events) regularly work together to ensure that the integrity of cycling is protected. The rules published by UK Anti-Doping (or its successor), are consistent with the World Anti-Doping Code, the core document that harmonises anti-doping policies, rules and regulations within sport globally. My Dad was one of those individuals who worked within anti-doping and was invited to the Commonwealth Games in Australia to help oversee the testing across the sports to ensure that the Games remained clean. Unfortunately, due to his health, he was not able to attend. He did continue to attend professional cycle races in the UK supervising the testing for a number of years before his ill health became too overwhelming. As the great cyclist, Eddy Merckx has been quoted saying ‘doping has to be fought, cheats must be unmasked, abuse should be punished but all this should remain human’. Moses was, indeed, human! He fought for justice and compassion, as seen by his reaction towards the ill-treatment of one of his fellows by the Egyptian guard. The Israelites saw him as a hero that saved them from the tyranny of Pharaoh.
Could Moses’s encounter with God be natural, through those vapours emanating from the burning bush causing him to begin his LSD type trip, or really just divine? The midrash - Brachot - says ‘With what voice did God speak to Moses? With Moses’s voice’ - Moses hears God’s voice as his own.
As Abigail Treu, senior rabbi at Oheb Shalom Congregation in New Jersey explains: ‘What about those who are unable to hear? They hear God’s voice as the voice in their heads. We hear the voice as an echo of our fathers and our mothers; as life experiences and emotions; voices of conscience. That voice in our heads night and day. This is the voice with which God spoke to Moses and with which God speaks to each of us’.
I hear my father’s voice in my head each week in synagogue. Ali, I am so proud you wear the tallit. You are up on the Bimah again, already! Well done for doing Hagbar. At least you can say Kaddish. I am so proud of how you are reading Hebrew. Knowing that my father would be extremely happy watching my faith develop and grow is a source of joy to me. He is my inspiration and is my hero in a tallit.