Guest Post: “Mistakes, Redemption, and the Burning Bush”

This guest post is from Drew Zuckerman, who gave this teaching at our Second Night Community Passover Seder on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

Hello everybody! I hope it will come as a pleasant surprise for y’all to see me giving a d’var. The Rabbi’s son is at it again, giving a teaching, not even on Shabbas. I loved teaching when I became bar mitzvah, and I have been looking for an opportunity to do it again.

Let’s get a quick recap of what comes before the Passover story: Moses, a Hebrew child, is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and grows up as heir to the throne even though he’s a Jewish guy. One day in the middle of his teenagehood, he finds a master beating Jewish slaves. Moses is not happy about this, so he kills the man with his own whip, and realizes he made a big mistake. He runs away into the wilderness, where he discovers a bush that burns yet does not stop burning. Whoa, holy bush!

Moses hears the voice of God, who tells him to go back to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Jewish people go. Moses, having just run away from Egypt, doesn’t really want to do it. But he doesn’t have much of a choice, it’s freaking God he’s talking to, so he goes back down to Pharaoh and tells him God says to, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh, a grinch-like figure, hardens his heart and refuses. So God sends down a plague. This repeats, 9 more times, until Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Jewish People go. So Moses gathers his people, telling them to pack so that they can leave quickly, but Pharaoh cuts the time, saying they have to leave much sooner than they thought. They don’t have the time to bake bread, and instead bring unleavened bread, now known as Matzah. And as they run, Pharaoh and his army chase them, until they arrive at the Red Sea. God gives Moses the power to split the Red Sea, and the Israelites cross safely, but when Pharaoh follows, the Red Sea folds on them, and they drown.

Now that we’re all on the same page about the basic story, today I am going to be talking about Mistakes, Redemption, and the Burning Bush.

Let’s Talk About Choices

Moses made a questionable choice – killing the Overseer. Though it’s debatable whether or not killing the Overseer was actually a bad decision. Yes, murder is obviously not great, but protecting your people is, and shouldn’t you do that at any cost? Here’s my interpretation:

We are defined by the impact we have on the world, by our actions, more than our intentions. Moses had great intentions, he wanted to protect his people from oppression, but he could’ve handled it better. Regardless of his intention, murder is still a crime, and it is a bad decision that he needs to own up to. But he doesn’t! Instead, he runs away. I don’t think I can really throw too much shade on Moses for this. Everybody has hidden from the consequences of a poor decision at least once in their life. If they say they haven’t, they’re either perfect (which I don’t believe in), God (which I do believe in), or lying (which I have no comment on). Facing the music isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do, and as I said earlier, our morality is more heavily defined by our actions than our intent.

So instead of practicing teshuva, Moses is running to a burning bush. And burning bush he finds, where God invites him to take his shoes off to not disrespect a holy space, and tells him to go back to Pharaoh. God asks Moses to be responsible, not only for his actions, but for his people. Moses is clearly the only one with the actual guts to stand up to his people’s oppressors, and so God says Moses has a responsibility for his people to set them free. We are required as humans and as people who live in a society to take responsibility, in whatever form it may be. We as the Jewish People have responsibility for the 613 Mitzvahs which make up Jewish spiritual discipline. But we also have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for our poor decisions, to not make excuses, and to work through the steps of Teshuvah. We have a responsibility to better ourselves, and we can always better ourselves.

Whenever we make a poor decision, a bad action, or the wrong choice, we always will have the option to make a better decision. We can have a redemption arc, if you will. We all make mistakes. We can always make amends, we can always realize we did something wrong and work to fix it. We can always practice teshuvah.

Moses killed the Overseer, and that was a terrible mistake, but we don’t remember him as “The Man Who Killed an Overseer That One Time,” no, we remember him as “The Man Who Told Pharaoh to Set Us Free.” God literally put the opportunity to be a better person in front of him. And Moses made a good decision, and it overpowered the negative one. Now we remember him as a hero. We can be like Moses.

In contrast with Moses, Pharaoh made a bunch of terrible decisions, and especially during the ten plagues had so, so many times to redeem himself by making a better decision. But at some point, it can become pretty clear that a person is stuck in a habit of making bad decisions, and at some point the consequence of that is losing the choice to be better. When Moses goes to Pharaoh during the 10 plagues, the first five times Moses asks Pharaoh to let his people go, Torah says Pharaoh “becomes stubborn.” This is interpreted as Pharaoh hardening his own heart, but when Moses threatens Pharaoh with the 6th plague, “Adonai stiffened the heart of Pharaoh” and he wouldn’t let them go.

I struggled with this a lot when writing this d’var. If God gave Moses the chance to be better by freeing his people, why didn’t God give Pharaoh the choice to be better by letting us go free? Furthermore, why does Exodus mention that God tells Moses that Gsod will harden the heart of Pharaoh, forcing him to not let the Israelites go? The sages struggled with this question too. Pharaoh had literally thousands of chances to let the Israelites go, everyday when he woke up, everyday when another slave died in the fields during hard labor, he could’ve chosen to let them go. But he didn’t.

Pharaoh showed himself to be purely evil at heart, and no amount of chances could’ve saved him. The only thing that might have convinced him that he was in the wrong was consequence. Here, the consequence was losing the privilege of choice, at a crucial moment for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Pharaoh was forced to watch his own people suffer, and had to watch himself to make the decision that further hurt his people. There comes a time when too many bad actions must have a supernatural consequence.

When God asks Moses to remove his shoes at the burning bush, that bit of Hebrew could also be interpreted as “unlock your habits,” so that Moses could realize what he did was wrong and work to fix it. God forces Pharaoh to watch his bad decisions play out during the Ten Plagues, and the point of that consequence is so that he can learn from it, that’s what all consequences are for. God wants Pharaoh to examine his bad decisions.

Pharaoh only makes the decision to set the Israelites free after days of suffering. That decision isn’t based on a realization of right and wrong, it’s a decision he makes so that he can be spared from further punishment. It’s a selfish decision. He falls right back into his bad habits. During the second plague, Exodus 8:11 says “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn and would not heed them, as YHVH had spoken,” and after the decision to let the Israelites go, he tries to go back on it, saying they only have a day to leave before his people will attack. And maybe that’s why at the end of the Passover story God allows Pharaoh and his people to drown. Pharaoh never made a good decision. Pharaoh chose his own demise with his poor choices. We spill drops of wine from our cup during seder, not only for the loss of the innocent lives of the people who blindly served Pharaoh, but also for the tragedy that Pharaoh couldn’t be saved.

In Conclusion

Moses made a bad decision (killing the overseer) and ran away. Then he chose to listen to the Voice of God at the Bush, and take responsibility for saving his people. We can always choose to be better, with one exception, which is that Pharaoh hardened his heart over and over until Torah says “God hardened his heart.” We don’t like to think that God forced that to happen, but we can understand it as the consequence of Pharaoh’s habit of making bad choices – he got stuck that way. If we make bad choices over and over, we can get stuck, like Pharaoh did, and lose the capacity to change.

Before Passover comes, Torah asks us to discard our Hametz, which translates to leaven. Spiritually it can represent our bad choices, the stories we tell ourselves, or our ego. While most of us might think of Yom Kippur as the official celebration of letting go of all of the bad decisions we’ve made, and going deep into a Teshuvinating process (yes, that’s a word now), Passover follows at the halfway point until the Next Yom Kippur. Just because it isn’t Yom Kippur doesn’t mean we can’t choose to let go of our bad habits or actions. We can always work to be better.

… unless we’re Pharaoh.