Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Love the Questions": The Burning Bush and the Western Myth of the Hero

Western culture loves it heroes. As Freud’s student Otto Rank showed in his classic “The Myth of the Birth of the Hero” (1914) Western culture is deeply founded on the myth of the hero (from Oedipus and Jesus to Harry Potter and most Hollywood films). A child (male) with special powers, born in dangerous circumstances, returns to receive his deeper calling and consequently conquers evil and redeems the world. Having been bred on those stories as children (whether it is through canonical sacred texts or the incessant reading of hero-centered fantasy books), we learn to identify ourselves as the “heroes of our own lives”, holders of unique powers and a solid destiny. We learn to expect that we have an answer to the world’s question.
Moshe’s life is the defining Biblical hero journey, and the burning bush is the canonical Western text of a person who receives a divine destiny, moving from refusal and denial to embrace and action. In contemporary leadership talk Moshe is committed to a vision and exists to turn that vision into a reality.
Unless you are the reader Yehuda Amichai.
Yehuda Amichai, in a short poem that spans Moshe’s entire life, draws a an anti-hero, a person not motivated by the mission God provides him at the bush as much as by a deeper longing, an unanswered question in his soul.
Amichai notices that at the moment of God’s revelation to Moshe at the burning bush, Moshe does something very strange: he hides his face, afraid to gaze upon God. This leads him to offer the following reading of Moshe’s journey:

Moses, our teacher, only once saw God’s face
And forgot.  He did not want to see the wilderness
Nor, even the promised land, but only God’s face.
He struck the rock in the fury of his longings
He climbed Mt. Sinai and descended; he shattered the two
Tablets and made a Golden calf; he searched
In fire and cloud; but all he could remember was
God’s strong hand and his outstretched arm
But not his face; and he became like a person who yearns
To remember the face of their beloved, but cannot.
He made for himself a ‘mug shot’ taking from the face
Of God, the face of the burning bush, and the face of
Pharaoh’s daughter leaning over him as an infant in the basket
And he circulated the picture among all the tribes of Israel
And throughout the wilderness. But no one had seen
And no one recognized.  And only at the end of his life,
On Mt. Nebo he saw and died
in a kiss from the face of God. 

Yehuda Amichai | Patuach, Sagur, Patuach translated by Steve Sager p.29, #5

משה רבנו ראה רק פעם אחת את פני האלוהים
ושכח. הוא לא רצה לראות את המדבר
ואפלו לא את הארץ המבטחת, אלא רק את פני האלהים.
הוא הכה בסלע בזעם געגועיו
הוא עלה להר סיני וירד, הוא שבר את שני
לוחות הברית ועשה עגל זהב, הוא חפש
באש ובעשן, אבל הוא זכר רק את
יד האלהים החזקה ואת זרועו הנטויה
ולא את פניו והיה כמו אדם שרוצה
לזכר את פני מי שאהב ולא יוכל.
הוא עשה לעצמו קלסתרון מפני
האלהים ופני הסנה הבוער ופני
בת פרעה שנרכנה מעליו כשהיה תינוק בתבה,
והפיץ את התמונה בכל שבטי ישראל
ובכל המדבר, אבל איש לא ראה
ואיש לא הכיר. ורק בסוף חייו,
על הר נבו ראה ומת
בנשיקת פני האלהים.

יהודה עמיחי, "פתוח סגור פתוח"

Moshe can be seen here as a tragic figure, oblivious of the great achievements of his life as he is caught up in his own existential search. But perhaps Amichai’s Moshe is not an anti-hero, but rather an inspiration to a deeper type of leadership. Amichai is suggesting that a deeper motivator for our action in the world is not the belief in some aggrandized calling, but rather a longing, a broken heart, an embrace of our existential journey.
I hear this same troupe in the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Writing to a young impatient wannabe poet in his “Letters to a Young Artist”, Rilke writes:

July 16, 1903
My dear Mr. Kappus: I have left a letter from you unanswered for a long time; … As I read it now, in the great silence of these distances, I am touched by your beautiful anxiety about life…
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Reading the burning bush in light of Rilke and Amichai, the inextinguishable flame of God’s burning bush becomes the inextinguishable devotion to questions, journey and yearning. Stay attuned to the yearning, not the heroic calling, says Amichai. This is perhaps the key to Moshe’s humble leadership, which got him known in the tradition as the “faithful shepherd.” It might even be the key to a new, meek but committed, Western heroism. “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”