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Three Contemporary Thinkers and Moshe’s Encounter at the Bush – Parshat Shemot 5775

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Three Thinkers

There are three twentieth century figures, each a giant in their area of expertise, that present a philosophy of our existence. Martin Buber an irreligious existentialist philosopher, Erich Fromm, the famous Jewish German psychoanalyst and Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the deeply religious thinker and Halakhic authority.

Whilst at first glance they may seem incongruous company, I believe they have much in common.  Each of their works has impacted me greatly in all elements of my being; my relationships, my thinking, my personal struggles and my daily life.[1]

Buber’s paradigm of I-It, I-Thou relationships, Erich Fromm’s ‘To Have and To be’ and Soloveitchik’s Adam 1 and Adam 2, all present two different modes of existence.  Each thinker in his own way is imploring us to critically analyse our lives, to face ourselves and ask the hardest and deepest of questions.  How do we approach our environment, the world around us, the people we form relationships with and the Divine call?  Their philosophies ask us to recognise that we cannot continue as we have done, they shake us to the core, challenge the status quo and invite us to reacquaint ourselves with a deeper more authentic way of life.

So what is it that these thinkers tell us? And how are these modern twentieth century personalities and thinkers relevant in any way to the ancient narrative we read from the Torah this week?  Is there a point of encounter between Moshe at the Burning Bush and Martin Buber’s I-Thou? Can Fromm’s mode of ‘being’ be in any way reminiscent of God’s response to Moshe that ‘I will be what I will be’, and can Moshe’s journey from the palace of Pharaoh in ancient Egypt -the pinnacle of civilisation- to a shepherd in the desert and then again being called to return to leadership by God, remind us of the dialectical movement from Adam 1 to Adam 2 that Soloveitchik describes in ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’?

Martin Buber and I-Thou

Martin Buber’s belief is that any authentic encounter of Man to the world and most especially to another being must be addressed in the mode of I-Thou and not I-It.  Man must see the person he is encountering not as an object but as a subject.  He must encounter him without any ulterior motives or agendas.  He must meet him as a whole being and must engage in a total encounter without masks or pretences.  Each person is enlarged through the encounter and leaves transformed.  The ultimate encounter for Buber is the I-Thou encounter between man and God.  Man must not speak ‘about’ God but ‘to’ God.  Any attempt to describe or define God renders Him to an ‘it’, and in a sense He becomes the an object rather than a subject. Through definition we attempt to understand God and hence possess and even manipulate Him – in a very real sense we become not dissimilar to idol worshippers.   Hence a true encounter with God can only be had when I speak directly to Him and hence only through dialogue and encounter can we truly create a relationship with God.  Buber writes ‘But God the everlasting presence does not permit Himself to be ‘had’.  Woe to the possessed who thinks he can possess God’. [2]

The problem is that in our age we embrace and encourage I-It far more than I-Thou.  We live in a world where viewing the Other as a means to an end, as an object rather than a subject, is standard and even encouraged.  What can this person do for me, how can he/she be of use to me? In what way will he/she allow me to achieve my ends?  Of course part of being a human is to see the word in I-It terms at times, however Buber believed that without I-Thou, without being open to the total presence of the Other, the power of the encounter and the meaning that is assured through the encounter, life is empty and inconsequential.

Erich Fromm and the mode of Being

Erich Fromm also in a similar fashion describes our experience of the modern world in two spheres – Having and Being.  One mode is the mode of ‘having’. In such a mode Man is convinced that the key to his happiness, self fulfilment and inner peace will come from ‘acquiring’ things, anything from material possessions to knowledge, love to comprehension of the world.  This says Fromm is a misconceived understanding of man’s essence and in the end only leads to hedonism, universal envy and greed.  The only way that man can truly achieve happiness and inner peace is through the mode of ‘being’.  The mode of being is where I am not influenced by any external forces, I am true to myself, I seek things, be it knowledge, happiness and meaning as a path to self growth as opposed to simply wanting to ‘acquire’ it.  To me Buber and Fromm are both proposing similar theories.  They both understand that any true authentic encounter with the ‘other’ and ultimately with the Divine, must incorporate a mode of being that requires seeing the other and even oneself  in a radically different way to that which we have become accustomed to today.

The twentieth and twenty first centuries have seen societies become far more consumer based.  The definition of self has become totally dependent on what we ‘have’ as opposed to who we are.  Advertising and the market economy have led us to believe that buying the latest car/i-pad/phone etc will increase our status and make us happier and more fulfilled human beings.  The new generation no longer know what it is to be  alone with themselves.  To be lost in their own thoughts, or looking out the window when travelling a long distance reflecting on inner thoughts and being radically amazed by nature, because there is never a moment where they are not engrossed in a screen, or a game, or communicating through technology.  The ‘face to face’ encounter has been replaced with facetime, and the mode of ‘being’ replaced by the mode of ‘having’.

Rav Soloveitchik and The Lonely Man of Faith

The third thinker that I believe expresses similar sentiments, is the great twentieth century theologian and Talmudist, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik.  In his infamous book ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’, he also delineates two types of man, using the two creation stories of chapter 1 and 2 as a basis for his thoughts.[3]  Adam 1 is created in the image of God and is charged with the task of filling the earth and reigning over nature.  He is given the Divine mandate to utilise his environment in order to create a dignified existence for himself.  His relationship to the Other is no different to the I-It of Buber – one of utility, motive and gain.  Together men unite to create a work community or a majestic community, in which through solving the problems of ‘how’ the cosmos functions, and in a scientific, technological manner are able to make a world that redeems them from their primitive existence.

Adam 2, is created from the dust of the earth.  He names the animals and woman is taken from him through an act of sacrificial suffering.  Adam 2, is charged with the command to ‘keep and guard the Garden’.  He does not feel the need to triumph over nature, he is not out to gain victories, but rather he seeks the meaning of his existence.  He asks not how the cosmos functions but why it does. He seeks to encounter the world, God and the Other through the mode of being, the I-Thou, not through the mode of having, the I-It.  He creates a covenantal community where he meets the Other, in order to overcome his existential loneliness.  He seeks redemption through meeting the Other in a mode of being.  As Rav Soloveitchik writes ‘”To be” is not to be equated with “to work and produce goods” ;”To be” is a unique in-depth-experience of which only Adam the second is aware and it is unrelated to any function or performance. “To be” means to be the only one, singular and different, and consequently lonely. For what causes man to be lonely and feel insecure if not the awareness of his uniqueness and exclusiveness. The “I” is lonely, experiencing ontological incompleteness and casualness, because there is no one who exists like the “I” and because the modus existential of the “I” cannot be repeated, imitated, or experienced by others.[4]

Though it is at this point that Rav Soloveitchik’s writing parts ways with both Buber and From.  For Buber and Fromm, man must move from a mode of Having/I-It to a mode of Being/I-Thou, for the second is superior to the first.  However Soloveitchik, is a dialectical thinker.  Since we have two stories of creation, two natures of man, Adam 1 and Adam 2, it is obvious that within each individual there exists these two elements.  Moreover, according to Soloveitchik, the destiny of Man is to constantly oscillate between these two extremes.  He writes:

“In every one of us abide two personae — the creative majestic Adam the first, and the submissive, humble Adam the second. As we portrayed them typologically, their views are not commensurate; their methods are different, their modes of thinking, distinct, the categories in which they interpret themselves and their environment, incongruous. Yet, no matter how far-reaching the cleavage, each of us must willy-nilly identify himself with the whole of an all-inclusive human .personality, charged with responsibility as both a majestic and covenantal being. God created two Adams and sanctioned both. Rejection of either aspect of humanity would be tantamount to an act of disapproval of the divine scheme of creation which was approved by God as being very good.”[5]

Thus man will never find true redemption, he must live in two worlds, the world of having and being, I-It / I-Thou.  He must recognise that man is made up of two types, two differing persona and each plays a role in his relationship to the world God and the Other.

These three thinkers, offer a profound view of man’s nature and our relationship to God.  I believe that this week’s Parsha acutely reflects these ideas.

Moshe and the Burning Bush – A lesson in Being

Moshe stands as a leader for us, not because he was uncompromising in his faith, and ready to totally submit himself to God. Neither is he our leader because he was a saint or half God.   Quite the contrary.  The Torah emphasises many times towards the end of his life that he was משה האיש – Moshe the man. Moshe was human, a great human being for sure, but totally human. He was a person who like us, questioned, doubted, had moments of crisis and was constantly searching. His search was for answers, for humanity, for God.  He wanted certainty, answers that would give him peace and tranquillity.  He was the greatest leader, because he understood his people.  He too, like his people had moments of doubt.  He was great because he felt the pain of his people, he empathised with their plight.  He was the greatest leader, because though God did not give him all the answers he desired, he continued nonetheless, working towards redemption of man and God.  He was the greatest leader because he saw in his people, an element of himself.  He identified with their search for identity and self, and he felt their fear and bewilderment.

Moshe’s story starts in Egypt. It begins with a baby who should have died, but, because of the humanity of his enemy, is saved. A child who inhabits two worlds. A boy who is both a slave and a Prince, who is a Jew and an Egyptian.[6]  We follow the story of the boy growing up, finding he cannot tolerate injustice and in a moment of total crisis of self, flees the only known civilisation to wander in the Desert.  We watch as he grows through his encounter with Yitro, as he marries and struggles to find who he is[7].  Finally his search reaches a pinnacle when he sees a strange phenomenon in the wilderness and he turns out of his way to question and reflect on the peculiar sight.  In this turning, in his ability to leave his comfort zone, God calls to him from within the fire.  This is the moment that changed history.  In this moment, God turns to man. He charges Moshe, and through him mankind, to take responsibility in the redemption process.   But there is much more than just a moment of revelation here.  The narrative here speaks of the very nature of Man and his relationship to God, as well as the secrets of God and his relationship to Man.

There are two main points in the narrative that I believe emphasise this point and I quote them here:

.  יא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הָאֱלֹקים, מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.  יב וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּךָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:  בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹקים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה.  יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱלֹקים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱלֹקי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.  טו וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלקים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כֹּה-תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹב, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; זֶה-שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם, וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר

11 And Moses said unto God: ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ 12 And He said: ‘Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.’13 And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say unto them?’14 And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shall thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’ 15 And God said moreover unto Moses: ‘Thus shall thou say unto the children of Israel: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you; this is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations.

At this point in the narrative God has introduced Himself to Moshe and bequeathed him with a very definite identity – he is now an Israelite.  God continues by telling him that He has heard the calls and suffering of his people, though He will not redeem them without help from Moshe.  Moshe is learning a new paradigm here – that of Brit- covenant when man and God work together to redeem mankind.

But this is not enough for Moshe.  He is man who requires answers and definitions – of himself and of God.  He wants to understand the how. How will I redeem them,  How does a Good God allow evil in the world? Moshe is a man who has been deeply influenced by the Egyptian culture and mode of thinking, which is not unlike that of Buber’s I-It, Fromm’s ‘Having’ and Soloveitchik Adam1.  Though we see the existential struggle and the search for a mode of being in Moshe, we also see his allegiance to the Egyptian paradigm of a God that can be defined and described and hence controlled and manipulated.  We also understand that having grown up in the palace of Pharaoh, he must have received a solid education in the idea that definition of self comes from what I have built, accomplished and achieved through the mode of having.

Hence when God approached Moshe, and announced that he is the God of the Israelites, He must teach Moshe, not just the message of Brit and responsibility, but also a radically different means of approaching a Deity.  He must teach Moshe that he is not a God that must be ‘possessed’, but a God that must be encountered.  He is not a God that can be defined but a God that must ‘be’. Moshe’s questions reflect this search of Adam 1 for definition, and God’s response emphatically outlines a new mode of encounter.

I believe Moshe asks God not one question below but actually two:

 מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.

 1) Who am I,

2) that I should go to Pharaoh and take the people of Israel out of Egypt.

He is I believe actually asking two questions.  One is the question of identity, the existential why of Adam 2 – who am I?  The second is a more practical how question of Adam 1.

God of course understands this nuance and in fact answers Moshe with two answers:

יב וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּךָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:  בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹקים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה.

1)And I will be with you

2)And this will be a sign for you that I sent you to take them out and worship me on this mountain

God’s response to Moshe is twofold.  In response to his second question the how he answers with a how ­­- this is how you will do it.  But in response to the Adam 2 question of why, God responds in the only way he can, not by answering Moshe through definitions, not by unveiling to him the secret to his existence and identity. No – that each person must do on their own, it requires a lifetime of living, searching and questioning.  The question of who I am is a journey that we call life and it is a journey we must each travel through our experiences and encounters.  So what is God’s response ‘I will be with you’.  In your moments of suffering and pain, of uncertainty and despair, know that I will be with you – Not to give you the answers, but simply to ‘be’, to provide you with an I-Thou moment that will move you forward and give you hope.  To show you through the mode of ‘being’ that there is meaning to your struggle, and hope in your journey to self.

This answer is a hard pill for Moshe to swallow.  For a man so embedded in the Ancient culture of ‘having’, it is hard to create a new paradigm of ‘being’.  Perhaps if he could define God, if he could understand how God works in this world, if he could possess some knowledge of the secrets of his being, he would be able control his own destiny and that of his people.  And so he pushes God again for a definition of Himself, this time using the people as an excuse ‘If the people ask me  מה שמך who you are what should I say?'(verse 13)

Again God detects in Moshe question two elements and responds accordingly:

.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.  טו וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלקים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כֹּה-תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹב, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; זֶה-שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם, וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּ

1) God says to Moshe ‘I will be what I will be’

2)’This you should say to Israel ”Being’ has sent me to you and the God of Abraham, God of Isaac ad the God of Jacob has sent me to you, this is my name forever this is my memory for all generations’

His response tells of two dimensions – two paradigms for our encounter with God. The personal and national, the individual and the universal.

As a personal response to Moshe God says – I understand the human need to define, categorise and control your given reality, but I am outside if such definitions.  I am simply ‘being’ , you can only ‘meet’ me, you cannot define me or objectify me.  I can be encountered only in the mode of being and not having, in and I-Thou encounter and not in an I-It.  This is a personal God.  I am not a God that can be manipulated at your will, or controlled as you like.  I am a God that will be with you, that is found in a true and authentic relationship filled with mutual respect total presence.

In the second part however God does seem to define Himself in some way.  But this is the national more universal definition of God.  I am a God that is involved with humanity, that creates personal relationships with man, that makes promises and fulfils them, and that acts in the framework of covenant which bestows on man dignity, freedom and responsibility.

What I want to suggest is that the framework surrounding Moshe’s search for self and truth until this point has been couched in the mode of ‘having’.  The influence of the Egyptian culture has weighed heavily on him, he understands reality through the mode of ‘having’, and thus feels the need to ‘have an identity’, ‘have a definition of God’, ‘have a truth’.  What God does is to shatter this paradigm.  In other words God says to Moshe ‘to comprehend your existence and mine, you have to break away from the mode of ‘having’ to a mode of ‘being’.  You have to understand that life is a journey, that inner peace, comes not from ‘having an identity or having knowledge’ but rather from ‘being’, from inner growth, covenantal partnership, freedom given and taken, knowledge as comprehending and not acquiring.  As Fromm writes:

“to ‘see’ reality in its nakedness.  Knowledge does not mean to be in possession of the truth; it means to penetrate the surface and to strive critically and actively in order to approach truth ever more closely.” [8]

When God says to Moshe ‘I will be what I will be’, he was instructing Moshe in the need to move from perceiving the world as a thing to possess, have and own,  to existing in a realm of ‘being’, open to an authentic altruistic encounter with the Other.   He must go back to oscillating between Adam 1 and Adam 2, seeking in its movement redemption, but knowing it may never come.

Moshe is the perfect leader, because of the very fact he struggles with self and God. He knows that his mission is to move the people from a mode of being ‘had’ as slaves- possessions, to a mode of ‘being’ as free individuals who are compelled to think, love and live of their own free will.  It is no simple task, it is one that takes a lifetime filled with moments of despair and redemption, but it is a destiny that God bequeaths to him here at the Burning Bush.  It is our destiny as part of the people of Israel to remind ourselves of this message too.  To remember to oscillate between Adam 1 and Adam 2, to seek the ‘being’ mode of existence, as well as the ‘having’ and to constantly be open to an authentic I-Thou encounter with the other and with God.

It is no easy task, it pushes us to our limits and sometimes even makes us uncomfortable, but it also provides an enlightening experience, where for a moment we see the world and God not in the cognitive and materialistic boxes we have created, but independent of them.  It removes our need to ‘define’ relationships, with God and Man, allowing them to just ‘be’.  If we can be there for others as God is there for us ‘אהיה עמך’ then perhaps we will have started the real road to redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The theory of these three thinkers presenting similar ideas is solely my own.  I have not seen another writer who parallels these three and so I do not know if the analysis is correct or not.  Neither have studied all three in depth enough to be able to academically justify this analysis.  However I write this from a more personal perspective, of someone who has been deeply influenced by these writers and their particular theories and who sees a thread of similarity running through their thinking.

[2] I-Thou p106

[3] There are two accounts of the creation of man in Torah, chapter 1 and 2 of Bereshit.  In each account there are startling differences, which have led many Bible critics to claims of differing authorships of the Bible.  R. Soloveitchik is definite in his response to this claim when he writes ‘It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it.* However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. The two accounts deal with two Adams, two men, two fathers of mankind, two types, two representatives of humanity, and it is no wonder that they are not identical’

[4] The Lonely Man of Faith

[5] Ibid

[6] This dual identity creates an identity crisis for Moshe that can be seen when he comes to strike the Egyptian and the pasuk tell us ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש – He turned here and here and saw there was no man.  If understood in a metaphorical and not literal way (for there were obviously people who saw as we see later), Moshe looked towards his Egyptian identity and sees no man, he looks to the slave Israelites and sees no man, and thus he listens to what he hears deep within himself, some moral conscience that forces him to see the injustice here and he strikes the Egyptian.  Moshe is a person who has a deep sense of right and wrong, but he also someone who knows he belongs in neither world and for this reason, as well as the fact he could never have felt at him in Pharaoh palace, and is rejected by the Israelite sin eth second incident, he flees to a place where he has no identity.

[7] Yitro stands as the paradigm of the truth seeker and thus Moshe identifies strongly with him and his existential struggles.  See

[8] E. Fromm: To have and To be p37

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