You're walking through the desert, and you've been walking forever. There is sand between your toes and there's a pebble in your sandal that's just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don't stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you've never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?
This Friday, Jews read the the beginning of the story of Exodus, which includes Moses's first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. "Moses, Moses!" And Moses says, Hineini, "Here I am." Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.
"Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."
You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I am, I am, I am, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.
"I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt," says God. "I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings."
Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, but somehow they came with you -- their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.
God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knows the sufferings of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to medieval rabbi and scholar Rashi, God demonstrates that God is with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.
"The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them," God says. "Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt."
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.
"I will be with you," God says. "I will be with you." God doesn't say "It will all be ok," or "Don't be ridiculous; of course you can do it." God doesn't tell Moses "This is your job -- now deal with it." God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.
We often feel isolated when facing challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. It's tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary -- our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.
This is why God's promise, "I will be with you," is such a powerful and healing response. When we don't actually know the outcome of a situation, "It's all going to be ok" is hard to swallow, and "just stay positive" can feel like blame.
Validation and acceptance create a space for real growth and change. "Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay." Presence means you're not walking away. Presence says "Your pain is not taboo." Presence says "You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything." Presence says, "Hineini," Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.
With this reading and the start of our secular new year, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering, even if you can't personally relate. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you're about to offer advice. A simple "I will be with you," may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is a gift.