Sightless among Miracles

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!

-- From the Mishkan T’filah, “A Prayer for Shabbat”

I was struck by the use of the word “sightless” in the opening line of this prayer from the Reform Jewish liturgy for the Sabbath. Look up the word “sightless,” and you won’t be surprised to learn it means “blind.” But here I think it is used in a very particular sense. We do not pray because we can’t see; rather, we pray because we don’t see. Long ago a Jewish rabbi named Y’shua, or Jesus (his Greek name), told his disciples that he spoke to people in parables because “seeing, they do not see.” In that sense, they were sightless but not blind.

The Sabbath prayer goes on to ask, “Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.” The bush in this case refers to the one the fugitive Moses encountered in the wilderness while tending his father-in-law’s flocks on the slopes of Mt. Horeb: “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Moses turned aside to see, and on this turning turned the whole history of Western religion. The Lord duly noted that he had turned aside to see, and spoke to him from the bush. He identified himself as the God of his ancestors and sent Moses back into Egypt to confront the pharaoh and to deliver the Hebrew people from their bondage.

The Sabbath prayer ends with the exclamation, “How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!” There are echoes here of the patriarch Jacob’s encounter with the Lord while he dreamed of angels ascending and descending on a ladder. Again, the Lord introduced himself in the dream as the God of his ancestors, and he promised that his descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth. Jacob awakened from his dream and cried, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." It didn’t seem to matter that he had dreamed the whole thing. "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The stone on which he had rested his head now became an altar, and he poured oil on it for sacrifice. The place was renamed Bethel, meaning “house of God,” and it became a center of worship for the Israelites before the temple was built in Jerusalem.

The burning bush that Moses encountered in the wilderness and Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching to heaven were singular events. But the Sabbath prayer is clearly pointing to something else: “Help us to see, wherever we gaze [emphasis mine], that the bush burns unconsumed.” I am reminded of lines from Elizabeth Barett Browning’s poem, “Aurora Leigh:”

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

When the Lord spoke to Moses from the burning bush, the first thing he told him was to remove his sandals “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." If our Sabbath prayer were to be answered, and our eyes were no longer sightless but filled with seeing, the first thing we would have to do is put off our shoes. We would have discovered that the whole of creation is holy ground.

Ex. 3:1-10
Gen. 28:11-21

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