In the age of modern technology we are flooded with a wealth of information. Having it all at our fingertips may seem like a blessing, but it also leads to the following burdensome reality: when we can choose to invest our time in absolutely anything, what we do end up choosing is a strong indication of who we are. If we had fewer choices, we could claim that a given decision was less an indication of what we valued, and more about what was available to us.
Regardless of whether a choice reveals our true selves, there always exists a single choice which is better than the others. The question simply becomes- which choice is it? Sometimes we may not realize which choice is best, but maybe our task is to sensitize ourselves so that we can figure it out.
There are only two times in Tanach when something is described as “בוער באש”, “burning with fire”. The first instance describes Moshe’s sight of the burning bush, and the second is the depiction of Har Sinai in this week’s (and last week’s) parsha. Not only is the phrase specifically used in these two instances, but in both places it is accompanied by the same nearby verb, “סור”, “to turn”. The difference between them, however, is in which direction the turning takes place.
Moshe was shepherding his father-in-laws flock, when the verse recalls: “behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not being consumed. So Moses said, ‘Let me turn now and see this great spectacle- why does this bush not burn?’ (Shemos 3:2-3) (Reading the continuation of those verses carefully, it was actually the turning itself which attracted God to choose Moshe as His messenger).
In the description of the Jewish people and their attention, however, we find a very different turning: “the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were on my two hands… [but] you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had quickly turned away from the way which the Lord had commanded you” (Devarim 9:15-16).
The contrast between these two episodes shines a light on what it means to respond to God’s messages. Some are less explicit than others, but every message serves a purpose. Each individual has their own burning bush, and it is up to that person to notice it; for us to turn our attention to that choice. It’s not to say that we must take action just yet, but at least, that we pay attention to the message.
Perhaps this also answers why it was that Moshe waited until he stood at the bottom of the mountain to destroy the tablets. After all, Hashem already told him -in heaven- that the Jewish people were committing a terrible sin- did he not believe God?! Did he have to witness the sin himself before destroying the tablets? The verse seems to add an extra clause which can help us understand: “I grasped the two tablets, cast them out of my two hands, and shattered them before your eyes” (ibid. 17). The burning mountain did not draw their attention before, so Moshe gave them another chance; a chance to look for the messages being sent to them. This time, unfortunately, the message delivered brought along a harsh reality.
Paying attention is the first step to change: to recognize our shortfalls, to acknowledge what needs improvement. Are we paying attention to those areas in which we act by rote? Do we consider the consequences of every behavior? Are we focusing on the state of our relationship with God?
As we usher in the month of Elul next week, we begin the process of repentance. We will begin to sound our annual alarm, to hear the annual message of God. The shofar presents us with two choices: to ignore the message, or to turn towards it. The purpose of the shofar is not just to provide us with a ritualistic reminder that we change our ways. It also gives us pause to remember that, at the very least, we should start paying attention to the messages; to click when we hear God say “Click Here”.