Alone in the desert, a comfortable Moses is shepherding his flock when he is captivated by flames burning in the distance. Approaching with caution, the Torah tells us that Moses simply cannot turn away from the burning bush. As he moves closer and closer, God calls out to him, and he responds with a single potent word—hineni, here I am. In awe of the fire before him Moses, though hesitant, cannot deny the power of the moment and the urgency of God’s instruction.
Off in the distance there is a fire burning. In fact, for months now, unprecedented fires have been sweeping across the American west. Unlike their biblical precursor, which burned but did not consume, the fires in California, Montana, and Oregon this past fall and winter have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres of land, destroying homes and taking lives along the way. And yet, there is also a striking similarity between these two fires, for just like that holy flame Moses encountered so too do these fires in our time carry a holy call to action.
While seasonal fires are very much a part of the earth’s natural cycle, the escalation in recent years is frightening. Over the course of the last fifteen years, seven of the ten largest fires in California’s history have taken place. But it’s not just fires; natural disasters as a result of human-induced climate change are on the rise around the globe. From hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico to flooding in Bangladesh and Sierra Leone, in these past few months alone we have seen the atrocity which can accompany the earth’s showcase of her discontent. As we have continued to exploit the earth’s resources, engineered cities in places humans otherwise couldn’t live, and produced more and more trash and pollution, the occurrence of natural disasters has more than quadrupled in the last fifty years.
The reality of climate change is undeniable, and while the long-term effects are not yet fully clear, what is apparent is that the current status quo is unsustainable. What’s more, it is the wealthy residents of industrialized nations who are making the biggest contributions to a human-induced climate change, whose consequences are most dramatically suffered by the poorest people.
Standing before the burning bush, Moses is reluctant to take on the mantle of responsibility God has placed before him. In their back and forth, God asks Moses, “What is that in your hand?” (Ex 4:2). In explaining why God would ask a question with such an obvious answer, the 12th Century French commentator Radak makes the connection to two other situations in which God similarly asks a biblical character what seems like a rhetorical question. God asks Adam, who is hiding after eating from the forbidden tree, “ayeka”—Where are you? Generations later, a divine messenger asks Jacob, at the end of their wrestling match, “What is your name?” Radak points out that in each of these instances, the seemingly rhetorical question precedes a moment of great change in the lives of our characters. For Adam, this is expulsion from the Garden of Eden; for Jacob, it is the acceptance of a new name, Israel, and the beginning of a new chapter in his life, living in the Promised Land as a patriarch. Similarly, God’s question to Moses takes place as a part of the conversation precipitating the next chapter in his leadership journey.
We should similarly be asking ourselves, “What is that in your hand?” How often is the answer a plastic water bottle, an extra photo copy, the gas pump connected to our SUV? These answers are obvious, but just like Moses before us, it is not the simple answer that will lead us to change; rather, the reckoning it demands of who we are and where we have been will serve us as we chart a new way forward.
Heeding the call that came forth from the flames, Moses’ commitment to dedicate himself to the redemption of the people required that he give up many of the comforts of his life. In answering hineni, he is not simply acknowledging the physical state he is in but affirming his openness to become who he needs to be. We too stand in front of the fire with the opportunity to say hineni—to move beyond the obvious answers and make sacrifices to the comforts and conveniences to which we are accustomed for the sake of the earth, acknowledging that it is those who are already living with the least who will continue to suffer the most.
Ari Witkin is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinic Intern at Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Last year, he was a T’ruah Israel Fellow.