The Jewish people in adversity: The bush which never burns

In Exodus 3:14, in the midst of the burning bush, G-d tells Moses that he will always be there for the Jewish people throughout all the historical and existential crises they will have to face during their 4,000 years of existence, based on the same covenant that he originally made with them through Abraham their father.

Wikimedia CommonsThe Burning Bush; a painting in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

But in the wake of the Holocaust, how on earth can the Jewish people believe that G-d has kept his assurance to Moses that he will always be there for them?

Where was G-d in the Holocaust while a third of his people – fully two thirds of the Jews of Europe – were being slaughtered by fire, gas, sword and gun, on the orders of the best-educated country in the world, while the rest of the world looked on and most did nothing to help, including elements of the Catholic Church hierarchy?

But neither has anybody managed adequately to explain why the Destruction of the Two Temples in Jerusalem happened, followed by the subsequent deportations from Israel – the home promised them by G-d himself in His original covenant with the Jewish people – to frightening, alien lands, whose goal was to destroy the Jewish people by subservience to their way of life, or worse.

And while this was the case in Babylon, Persia, Egypt, it has been especially and glaringly obvious during the last 2,000 years in Europe, starting with Spain, Rome and Germany, where Jews have lived for over 2000 years.

This ancient negative attitude to the Jewish people continues today with attacks on Israel by some extremists, both physical and verbal, by the same very same powers that never change where the Jewish people are concerned, however pious their sentiments, or plausible their demeanour.

So in our biblical passage today, what G-d is telling Moses, the shepherd of the Jewish people (and in Hebrew shepherd also means beloved) is that the difficult Exodus from Egypt is necessary and fraught with danger. The Jewish people will nevertheless eventually arrive in their promised home of Israel, but...

For in repeating the phrase 'I will be what I will be', G-d is saying that 'I will be with you more than once in your history. I will be with you throughout your entire Exodus from Egypt – the power which represents oppression and misery and where you are being treated like slaves and your children buried alive in the bricks that are being used to build up the pyramids for Pharaoh.

'You simply have to get out of that situation.

'But I will also be with you when, eventually, you will temporarily have to leave your land of Israel when others invade, destroy the Temple and the land itself and also seek to replace the religion I have given you with other religions and philosophies which hate you.'


And this is what happened. It is not an explanation. Maybe not an answer to 'why', but maybe an answer to 'who, what, where and how'.

For how can G-d's clear words: 'I will be with you – the Jewish people – in all your agonies over thousands of years, culminating in the Holocaust and the attempts to destroy My country, Israel' be interpreted by others as 'I am the great I am'? But that is what has happened.

Accurate translation has simply flown out of the window as far as the language of the Jews is concerned.

Most people don't like facts. Facts are very upsetting. But the fact is that there is no 'I am' in Hebrew. There is no present tense at all, but especially in the verb 'to be'.

So you can say 'I was' and you can say 'I will be' in Hebrew, but Hebrew, the divine language of G-d, whose letters are often picturesquely described as actually creating the world, simply cannot utter the sentiment of 'I am'.

Like the Jewish people, Hebrew is dynamic, not static. Like the Jewish people itself, when at home in their own country, the Jewish G-d represents actions not words – deeds, not utterances. From within the bush which is on fire but does not burn G-d is saying that it is what you do that counts, not what you say.

That is why Moses has a speech impediment. The greatest Jewish prophet and leader of all time can't even express himself properly and yet G-d has chosen him, the shepherd raised in an Egyptian court, to be the inspiration for the Jewish people. For G-d mistrusts smooth talk. G-d knows that actions speak louder than words, and that words and thoughts by themselves are not enough.

These three little words in Hebrew: eyeh asher eyeh, say it all. G-d cannot be pinned down. He cannot simply 'be'. He cannot simply look on while his people are extinguished. The bush which appears to be burning is not burning at all. It is an illusion. The bush is the Jewish people. 'To be' is to be the rest of the world which looks on while the Jewish people are extinguished. But G-d is within the Jewish people and will never ever allow them to be extinguished completely.

Every time people try to burn the Jewish people in a Holocaust, whether during the Destruction of the two Temples, the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the various massacres in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, and the most recent Holocaust during which much of the world was silent, the Jewish people miraculously survive, start again and work for the future.

And what is more, after 2000 years, the Jewish people now have their sovereign state back again with its citizen army, its brains, its creativity, its Jewish values and the knowledge that whatever the rest of the world says, they, the Jewish people, will carry on with their deeds, building up a future for their children and grandchildren while being fully aware of the past, but without regrets.

PixabayLake Galilee in Israel. 

For G-d continues by saying to Moses:

'Tell the children of Israel that the Lord G-d of your forefathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob has sent me to you. This is My Name eternally and forever, and this is both my remembrance of you and your remembrance of Me from generation to generation...I have always remembered and always will remember what was and is done to you in Egypt [in this Egypt and in all subsequent Egypts] and will always act accordingly... I shall bring you up out of Egypt ... to a land flowing with milk and honey.'

And this has happened again in marked form in our own lifetime. For although we do not understand why our parents and grandparents suffered in the Holocaust, and in many cases were also exterminated by the best educated and most cultured country in Europe, every Pesach we, the Jewish people, are grateful that our children and grandchildren are now back in their own homes once again in our small land the size of Wales.

We rejoice that G-d has kept the covenantal promise he has made and will always renew with the Jewish people through the ages, as expressed in Shabbat's synagogue reading.

For in this dark season when winter nevertheless slowly morphs into spring and the days become slightly longer once again, G-d reiterates his loving assurance of companionship and eternal vigilance to a tentative Moses in the bush that (unlike the bushes of history) never burns down, as a new season of faith and hope buds up from the ground and we, the Jewish people, look forward to our next festival, the New Year for Trees and thank G-d once again for bringing us to this season.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.