By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Shemot (Exodus 1:1−6:1)
In the fall of 1971 and again in the fall of 1974, I visited Santa Katerina Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula at the foot of what is known as Jebel Musa, commonly known as Mount Sinai. Built between 548 and 565, the monastery is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and contains a library with many unique books and manuscripts. According to tradition, Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. Angels then took her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains.
The monastery itself was built by the order of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. The bush on the grounds is purportedly the very one seen by Moses. Whether you believe it or not, standing in front of the bush at the foot of Mount Sinai, transports one back into ancient Israelite history.
In our Torah reading this Shabbat Moses confronts the actual burning bush. The text tells us: “He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” An angel of the Lord appears and begins the discourse which leads to Moses going to Egypt and becoming the liberator and the lawgiver of the people of Israel.
This burning bush has remained an important motif in Jewish tradition. It is the symbol of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. For many years The Burning Bush Press published important works on behalf of Conservative Judaism. Solomon Schechter had selected the emblem of the burning bush as a token of his visionary wish that “the light of knowledge, while burning fiercely, would not consume the student.” For Schechter it represented the light of Torah which was ever-burning in the life of the Seminary and Judaism. Lewis Loeb, designer of the Lincoln penny, was the person responsible for the familiar Seminary symbol. The symbol, for me, also represents the eternality of the Jewish people.
Mark Twain lived in Austria in 1896 and found that the Habsburg Empire used scapegoats, mainly the Jews, to maintain unity in their diverse empire. In 1898, he published an article “Stirring Times in Austria.” Twain received many letters, including one from an American-Jewish lawyer who asked Twain: “Tell me, from your vantage-point of cold view, what in your mind is the cause? Can American Jews do anything to correct it either in America or abroad? Will it ever come to an end?” In response, Twain penned an essay entitled “Concerning the Jews” which Harper Magazine published in 1898.
While the essay itself is not all that not complimentary to the Jewish people, Twain offers a fascinating conclusion. He writes: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of; has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Twain’s words still resonate. It reminds us of the burning bush which remained intact in the face of the flames. It symbolizes our people surviving against all odds, all oppressions, all persecutions.
Daniel Gordis in his book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn traces the history of the state from its beginning to this present day. In his introduction quotes the very same essay by Mark Twain. Twain noted, in his essay, that one Jewish man had a strategy for ensuring that the Jews would have a future better than the past. “Have you heard of Theodor Herzl’s plan? He wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own… At the first Zionist Congress last year… there were delegates from everywhere, and the proposal was received with decided favor.”
Twain also had his reservations, “I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country… I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore.”
As we know, exactly 50 years later the State of Israel was created and against all odds continues to maintain itself to this very day. Charles Krauthammer, in an article in September 2012, according to Gordis, captured the accomplishment perfectly. “Plant a Jewish people in a country that comes to a standstill on Yom Kippur; speaks the language of the Bible; moves to the rhythms of the Hebrew calendar; builds cities with the stones of its ancestors; produces Hebrew poetry and literature, Jewish scholarship and learning unmatched anywhere in the world – and you have continuity.”
It is the story of the burning bush once more. The fire burns, but the bush is not consumed. It is singed, but it continues against all odds to survive and, in fact, to thrive. May the fire continue to glow for millennia to come.
This will be my last Torah article for the Chicago Jewish News as I prepare for retirement from my congregational work. It has been a privilege for almost 25 years to have shared my Torah with you.