Torah
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Parshat Shemot: Exodus 1:1-6:1; Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23.

We spent the past holiday season drawn in by an array of different lights and stories.

Chanukah candles shared the story of a miracle; decorative lights in our neighborhoods shared the stories of family traditions; Saturn and Jupiter in an apparent conjunction in the sky shared a story of cosmic alignment, and the glowing ball descending from the top of One Times Square shared the celebrating of another cycle around the sun and an opportunity for beginnings.

Each of these drew us in for ritual moments of reflection and inspiration; and, because of this, maybe now we are more susceptible to discover the light worth giving our attention to in 2021.

Shemot, the opening Torah portion in Exodus, is the beginning of one of the best known stories of all time. The story follows our hero Moses, who tradition says was drawn to “a blazing fire” before approaching the burning bush where he would meet the Divine Spirit (Exodus 3:2).

Rashi suggests that the flame was a “fire of the heart,” which I read to mean, “it was inspiring.” For Moses, this flame inspired curiosity and motivation. Some say the bush ignited specifically for him; others say the bush had been burning for some time and Moses was the first to pay attention. However, most people I know might not believe it happened this way if it even happened at all. 

It’s the miraculous parts of our story, dramatic and designed to pull us in, that sometimes push us away. The drama of the burning bush, the plagues or the splitting sea are so fantastical that it’s often easier to doubt the stories’ credibility than to see ourselves as participating characters. I’ll admit I don’t know exactly how this story happened, but I do believe in the power of our stories to inspire change and our ability to bring them to life. 

We held the shamash as we lit the Chanukah menorah and spoke of the miracles performed for our ancestors and gazed at the blazing fire. Today, the Torah is inviting us to give our attention to another flame to nurture and love — our own burning bush — to guide us out of our narrow place. Maybe this is a flame we’re already familiar with, like a new year resolution or a quarterly goal. In three months, the story we start this week will invite us to a seder experience, as if we lived this story. 

Rituals are the sacred theater that draw us in to pay attention to our stories. They also can be the habits to keep us accountable to our highest goals, once a week or once a year, with candles and meditations. This year, as we start the Book of Exodus and the Book of 2021, allow our rich tradition to provide the tools to guide you through your own story as you start your journey to freedom. 

Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh is executive director of The Well.

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