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Shemot: And God Said, “Hineni”
By Cantor Lois Kittner
I believe in miracles, and I believe in God, but the accepted translations and interpretations of common scenes in the Torah had made it uncomfortable, if not impossible–for me, as a Jewish woman, to find much meaning from Torah in my life. That’s a pretty strong admission coming from an ordained Cantor, and it is also my truth.
Reading the Torah as a girl, as a young woman, and as a woman of a certain age only emphasized the male dominant language and prejudice of our culture. It takes great effort and imagination, a la Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, to imagine that which is not in the Torah itself. Listening to the “elevator-speech” interpretations that have been shared in too many Rabbis’ divrei Torah only exacerbated the issue.
It wasn’t until I was in Dr. Ora Horn Prouser’s “Introduction to Bible” class at The Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY, that things really took a turn for the better. I will always be grateful to AJR and to Dr. Prouser for giving me the Torah of my aging years; the Torah that I can turn and turn, for the rest of my life.
Exodus 3:3-5 are my favorite verses in the Torah:
Vayomer Mosheh, asoora-na v’er-eh, et hamar’eh hagadol hazeh; madoo-ah lo yiv’ar ha sneh. Va-yar Ado-nai ki sar leerot, Vayikra aylav Elo-him mitokh ha sneh, va-yomer “Mosheh, Mosheh,” vayomer, “Hineini.” Vayomer, al teekrav ha-lom, shal-n’alekha may-al raglekha, ki hamakom asher atah imayd alav admat kodesh.
Common translations and interpretations describe these verses as Moses saying, “I must turn aside to see this marvelous sight! Why is the bush not burning up?” and God calling out to Moses, “Moses! Moses!” and Moses immediately responding, “Hineni” (I am here), and God telling Moses, “remove your shoes from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
In verse 3, just to “hear” Moses speaking to himself, is highly unusual. We have hardly heard Moses speak, in the Torah, since he was born! He was a crying baby in Exodus 2:6; in 2:13 we hear him speak when he comes upon two Hebrews fighting; and in 2:22, Moses names his son Gershom, giving the reason, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” Until the encounter with God in the burning bush, those are the only instances in the Torah in which Moses has actually spoken. There is clearly labeled dialogue starting at Exodus 3:11, and it begins with Moses questioning God’s plan, not with Moses saying that he is at God’s service. So how else could these verses be understood? Vayomer, (and He said), can be God speaking, continuing to speak, and speaking further.
Verse 3: Moses says to himself, “I’m going to turn around and really look at this! This is amazing! Why is that bush not consumed by the fire?!” He has now turned completely to the bush, and is staring at it in wonderment. He is in awe and mesmerized by this amazing sight.
Verse 4: And God saw that he (Moses) turned to look, and called to him from inside the bush, saying, “Moshe…Moshe,” and He said, “Hineni.” God gently tells Moses, “I am here.” (vayomer)
Still in shock, Moses is staring at this burning bush; hearing a voice calling his name, first once, then again. He is dumbfounded, but compelled, and he starts to take a step closer… and God speaks again. (vayomer)
Verse 5: God continues to speak. God gives short instructions, as one does when one is dealing with a person in shock. Quietly, clearly, one thing at a time. (Vayomer) And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Moses’ personal relationship with God begins here, with God letting Moses know that God, the Creator of Miracles, is present. To me, this is stunning! This is breathtaking! This is my theology. God is with me, although I may not always be aware. I may be distracted, but God is with me. Furthermore, rituals, (ie, taking off one’s shoes because the ground on which one is standing is holy ground), are an important part of my being in relationship with God. Rituals help me to sanctify those moments of awareness.
The Torah may not represent me, or many others, in an obvious way. But, I can find new understanding and new meaning, when I take on the responsibility of looking for myself. It takes a combination of curiosity, vulnerability, and confidence, to look with your own eyes and your own experiences instead of just accepting what others tell you something means. Torah is a miracle. Whatever its true origin(s), and in spite of all who have tried to destroy its power, it still thrives. When I turn to it, with some heightened awareness and focus, I can hear God’s gentle assurance: “Hineni.”
Cantor Lois Kittner (www.TorahLady.com) is a former New York City cabaret performer, who brings her passion for singing, and interpretation of song, to her davenning. For over twenty years, “Cantor Lois” has been writing poetry and composing songs for Jewish prayer. Her podcast “Conversations With Cantor Lois” centers on the importance of meaningful, personal ritual in people’s lives. Cantor Lois leads live 10-minute meditations during “A Moment of Meditation” on her “Cantor Lois” FaceBook page, and on Instagram. Cantor Kittner is a proud graduate of The Academy for Jewish Religion, in Yonkers, NY, a pluralistic seminary ordaining Rabbis and Cantors, and she is a member of The Association of Rabbis and Cantors.