Cultivate the Patience to See Burning Bushes
"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!" Exodus 3:3-4
Almost all of us know the story of the burning bush. Moses is out tending his father-in-law`s flock, when he notices an amazing site – a bush that burns but is not consumed. He stops to look at it, and God appears to him from the flame. This is the first time that Moses meets God "face to face." God taps Moses as the man to free the Israelites, and receive the Ten Commandments, and from there on, it`s all history.
But what if the story had gone differently? What if it went something a little bit more like this: Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. He drives the flock into the wilderness, and comes to Horeb, the mountain of God. He had always found that place relaxing, although he never thought much about why, and since Moses had a lot on his mind this particular morning, he decided Horeb was, as always, a good place to sort though his thoughts.
Moses thought through the day ahead. As soon as he had tended to the flock, he needed to rush back to the tent, change into his dress robes, and catch a caravan into the city, because he had a packed day of meetings ahead of him. He was trying to figure out how he could get all his work done in time to get to the gym that night, and still get home before his son Gershom went to sleep, when his eye caught a marvelous sight! There was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not being consumed by the fire. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn`t the bush burn up?"
Just then his cell phone vibrated. He grabbed the phone out of his robe pocket. It was a text message from his friend Nathan, who always seemed to know what was going on a few days before anyone else.
Moses read, "Wool futures 2 go up. Don`t sell 2day. Call L8r. N8."
By the time Moses had read the message, he was well past the bush and had already forgotten about the odd flames. With the phone still in hand, he called his wife, Zipporah, just to check in.
Five minutes later, when he got off the phone, he remembered the miraculous burning bush, but it was already well behind him. He thought of going back but realized then he wouldn`t have time to stop for a cup of coffee, so he called the fire department, which sent a crew to put out the fire.
Thus for a short time Moses became a local hero for saving the wilderness from burning down. Meanwhile, God tried the burning bush routine a few more times, but eventually, God realized that no one had time to notice the subtle miracle and scribbled a quick note: "Note to Self: Command these people to take a day off every week so they have time to notice my miracles!" Then God switched to email. But unfortunately, everyone thought God`s messages were spam, and deleted them. So ends the story of the Israelites. The Bible never gets past the Burning Bush scene of Exodus 3:3, well before the freeing of the Israelites from slavery, the parting of the Red Sea and the awe inspiring moment on Sinai, culminating with the giving of the Ten Commandments.
The rabbis teach us that the striking part of Moses` behavior in the Burning Bush story, in its original form, is that he takes the time to notice that the bush is burning but not being consumed. It takes patience to notice that something is on fire but not burning up, because you have to actually sit with it for awhile to observe the changes, or lack thereof.
The Bible says, "When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush," (Exodus 3:4) stressing that it is not until God sees that Moses turns aside that God actually speaks, as if this was the actual test. Will Moses notice? Will he take the time to stop and observe this peculiar site?
Today, our lives are so frenetic that, like Moses in the "what if" version, we rarely have time to catch our breath, let alone be alert for spiritual portals or miracles. One of the reasons many of us love the desert is that when we are surrounded by the vast vistas, the sparse vegetation, and the bold colored rocks, we do have time to stop and notice. Out "there" we are able to remove ourselves from everything that normally demands our attention – email, cell phones, voice mail, laundry, to-do lists, breaking news, not such breaking news, carpools, schedules, what should I make for dinner and on and on. Perhaps the spirituality many of us experience outdoors is created by the simple fact that we are less distracted, so we are able to be deeply attentive to what is around us as well as what is inside us.
Throughout the Bible, theophany (God appearing to humans) does not just occur in the wilderness, but it usually does. Perhaps God did try to show Himself in the towns or cities but there was so much tumult – people coming and going, merchants hawking their wares, kids playing running games, friends shouting greetings – that no one noticed Him.
One message of the Burning Bush story is that spiritual awareness involves slowing down and waking up to the world around us. I am not suggesting that if we slow down and take time to look, listen, and notice that we will actually meet God face to face, because according to Jewish tradition since the end of the Prophetic Age, God no longer makes direct contact with humanity.
But I believe we still have opportunities to meet the Divine (whatever you believe that to be), because in the wilderness, we connect with That Which is Greater Than Ourselves (one of my favorite names for God), and we are embraced by a sense of belonging, of oneness, and of peace.
I know that it`s not always possible (or even desirable) to relocate to the middle of the desert for a month. For people who live in the city, the closest you might get to the wilderness is an urban park. But even there you can cultivate the patience to see burning bushes and open yourself to spiritual opportunity. One of my favorite "tools" for slowing down, taking notice, and being fully present, is a short, sensory meditation that can be done anywhere. Let me share with you how it worked on an Adventure Rabbi hike I was leading on the trails above Boulder, Colorado.
A group of 40 people had gathered for one of our monthly Sabbath hikes. My task, in two hours, was to give the group a chance to separate from their work weeks, to slow down and catch up with themselves. Ultimately the goal was for them to taste "Sabbath rest."
There was a palpable buzz as we hiked up the trail – the excitement of people who were meeting for the first time and were not sure of what to expect. The steep red rocks ahead of us, jutting skyward above Boulder, had a luminous rosy glow to them, unique to the early morning hours. The small wildflowers of early spring poked courageously from the still cold ground, and here and there pockets of snow still clung to the rocks. Early morning in Colorado is a glorious time for those who are awake!
As we hiked, I invited the group to try to consciously slow down their minds and shift into their "Sabbath souls," to allow themselves to experience the calmness and grace that surrounded us. As I listened to the talk on the trail though, I realized that not only was the shift not happening but my group could not even notice much of what they were seeing around them. Their work weeks were too entrenching, still demanding thought and attention, and their conversations with others on the trail were too compelling.
I stopped the group at a large rock outcrop, to try to readjust. As they sat down to rest, I read them the Burning Bush story. They immediately pointed out how hard it is to be like Moses today, to be fully present, to be here and now. Then we discussed how difficult it can be, even here in the outdoors, surrounded by nature, to stop our brain wheels from turning.
Then I introduced one of my favorite mind focusing exercises, and the group agreed to try it. Each person would focus quietly on either listening, or seeing, for ten minutes, after which we would share what we had noticed.
Ten minutes went by, uncomfortably at first and then, all of a sudden, too quickly. When the time was almost over, I slid my backpacker guitar out of my backpack. Quietly, I began to play Oseh Shalom, a Jewish prayer for peace. Those who had wandered off to sit elsewhere made their way back to the rock, so that we were all sitting in a circle, and gradually the group joined me in song. Forty voices singing together, the ancient Hebrew words linking us together.
"So what did you notice?" I asked my now very chilled-out group.
"I noticed," said Greg, "how loud it was. I mean at first when we stopped talking it was really quiet, but after a while I noticed all these sounds I didn`t hear before, and it was really loud."
Kate said, "I hadn`t heard a single bird while we hiked. But when I was quiet I heard chickadees, robins, and cardinals and lots of bird sounds I didn`t even recognize."
"I didn`t realize how close we were to the road," said Steve. "It seemed so far away, but it was much louder than I thought it was."
The people who focused on the sense of sight during their ten minutes joined in.
Mark said, "At first I was disappointed that I had sat on the rock, instead of in the meadow where all the flowers are. But after a while I noticed that there are several different lichens growing here, and the greens are all different, and quite beautiful."
"I was really taken by the textures. I was sitting under a ponderosa pine, and the bark falls off in these really cool patterns," said Anita.
David added, "I sat in the meadow and I was amazed at how many different types of grasses there are. I thought it would be just one kind of grass but really there are quite a few."
Amazingly, we all seemed to share the experience of, "At first I thought one thing, but after I sat for a while I noticed something else." In order to be like Moses and truly notice what is directly in front of us, we had learned that we needed to sit quietly for a while, to observe, and to become fully present.
As we continued up the trail, a feeling of tranquility permeated the group. Conversations shifted, and some people chose to hike silently. At last, most of us were fully present in the experience.
When we reached the top of our hike, we gathered in a circle and joined together in traditional Sabbath prayers. Then we sat in silence for a long time, after the last exhalation of sound had drifted over the foothills. As I looked around the group, I saw that everyone`s faces appeared less strained, and their shoulders had finally relaxed.
And as we hiked down the trail, I heard snippets of conversations: "What a difference it makes when you really slow down and notice what is around you!"
"That was the first time I`ve ever said a prayer and felt anything."
"I didn`t know that Judaism could be so powerful."
"Too bad the congregation can`t have their sanctuary up here! It would be so easy to pray!"
I privately gave thanks for this amazing trail, for rocks and flowers, for grasses and birds, for this experience that allowed these 40 people to open their eyes, ears and souls to the wonder of creation. Their journey toward cultivating the patience to see burning bushes had begun.
I have repeated this simple yet powerful exercise countless times, seated and walking, outside and indoors. Although I love doing the exercise while hiking, it works indoors as well. I recently tried it with a group inside a sanctuary with wondrous results. What do you notice after gazing at your hand or listening to your own heartbeat for five minutes?
Heightened awareness is the first step toward engaging the spiritual possibility that continually surrounds us. It is accessible to us whether we live in Manhattan or Montana. Cultivate the patience to see burning bushes. You will be amazed at the wonders you discover. When we marvel at the world around us, we prepare to meet the miracles that await us, around most every corner.
From the book God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi by Rabbi Jamie Korngold, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.