“The Message of the Burning Bush”
(updated and revised from Shemot 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of G-d’s revelation to Moses at the סְּנֶה–“s’neh,” the burning bush.

To escape Pharaoh’s wrath for killing the Egyptian who was savagely beating the Hebrew slave, Moses has fled to Midian. The “Prince of Egypt” has now been reduced to shepherding the flocks of Jethro, his father-in-law. Scripture relates, (Exodus 3:1), וַיִּנְהַג אֶת הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר, that Moses guided the sheep deep into the wilderness. Our commentators explain that Moses led the sheep far from civilization in order to make certain that the flocks would not graze on land that belonged to others.

Moses arrives at the mountain of G-d, also known as חוֹרֵב–Horeb. There, an angel of G-d appears to him in a blaze of fire, from amid the bush. The Bible states that (Exodus 3:2), וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל. Moses saw, and behold the bush was on fire, but the bush was not consumed. As Moses turns aside to look at the great sight, G-d appears to him. The Al-mighty informs Moses that he has been chosen to rescue the People of Israel from enslavement in Egypt. The rest is history.

This scenario raises an obvious question: Why did G-d appear to Moses in a סְּנֶה–“s’neh”–a bush? And why was the bush burning, and yet not consumed?

The symbolism of the bush has challenged the commentators from time immemorial. The great Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz cites a host of Midrashim in which the sages offer possible meanings of the symbolism of the bush.

Brutal enslavement: Reb Shimon ben Yochai said that just as this bush is tougher than all the trees in the world and any bird that gets inside can never get safely out without its limbs being torn to shreds, so the bondage suffered by Israel in Egypt was tougher than any other (Mekhilta, beginning of Exodus).

Humility: Rabbi Eliezer ben Arakh said that G-d lowered Himself, and spoke out of the bush. For you can find nothing more humble among the trees than the bush (Mekhilta, Exodus 2).

G-d’s Omnipresence: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karha explains that G-d spoke from the thornbush to teach that there is no place without the Divine presence, not even a thornbush (Shemot Rabbah 2:9).

Egyptian enslavement similar to a thornbush: Just as a person who thrusts his hand into the bush suffers no hurt because the thorns are bent downwards, but when he tries to pull his hand out, the thorns catch it and he cannot withdraw it, so it was with the enslavement in Egypt, at the beginning they welcomed Israel but when they sought to leave they would not let them (Yalkut Shemoni, 169).

The bush is like a heart: The shape of the bush resembles the heart. Like the bush, a human heart can also burn without being consumed. (Torah Shelemah, vol. 8, p.123)

And so, according to the rabbis, the s’neh, the thornbush, represents many things: entrapment, bondage, humility, the omnipresence of G-d and the human heart.

An additional, powerful explanation of the symbolism of the “s’neh,” with significant contemporary implications, is offered by another Midrash. One of the most difficult feelings for human beings to master is the feeling of empathy–the ability to share the concern of others and to feel their suffering. In Exodus 3:7, G-d says to Moses, “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and I have heard their outcry because of its taskmasters, for I have known of its sufferings.” Not only does G-d know of, and respond to, the Jewish people’s sufferings, He actually personally experiences the Jewish people’s sufferings. And that is why, according to the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:7), G-d says to Moses, “Do you not perceive that I am overcome with anguish to the same degree as Israel? Then discern it from the place where I am speaking to you, from the midst of a thorny bush! See that I share their pain!”

According to the Talmud, (Megillah 29a), when the people of Israel are in exile, שְׁכִינָה עִמָּהֶן, G-d and the Divine presence are with them in exile. When the Jewish people are in pain, the Al-mighty is in pain. While G-d relieves us from our pain, it is also necessary for His people to relieve G-d of His pain.

In the greater scheme of things, it is not merely freedom that the Jewish people seek, but rather to attain the state of “nobility” that G-d wants. While we may be freed from slavery and from the backbreaking work, the only way to free G-d of His pain is to raise ourselves up, so that we may become the noble human beings that He wants us to be.

May you be blessed.