Understanding the Burning Bush

Shemot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Dec 16, 2013 / 5774

This week’s parashah, Shemot, begins the saga of the enslavement of the Israelites in the land of Egypt. After waxing great and becoming a fifth column, a new pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” takes severe steps to oppress and ultimately enslave the foreign people in his land. Our hero-in-the-making, Moses, is born to a Levite family; and as a result of Pharaoh’s decree to annihilate the firstborn males, he is placed in a basket in the bulrushes of the Nile. Found by the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses matures in the Egyptian palace, and one day “wanders out to his kinsfolk” and sees their burdens. Distraught and angered by the abuses of one taskmaster, Moses kills him, thinking that no one has witnessed his misdeed. Later, when Moses discovers that “the episode is known,” and that Pharaoh is seeking to kill him, he flees to Midian and the wilderness of Sinai, where he encounters a burning bush. How may we understand this symbol of “the bush that is not consumed”?

Professor Ze’ev Falk offers dramatic insight into our verse. Falk writes,

Moses protests regarding his ability to take the Israelites out of Egypt. Therefore God makes a promise to him: “I will be with you and this will be the sign that I have sent you; when you take the people out you will worship God on this very mountain” (Exodus 3:12). What is this sign and how does it prove to Moses that he will succeed? It appears that the sign is the burning bush that is not consumed. This suggests that in their exodus from Egypt, they will worship God in this place. The burning bush symbolizes the altar where the fire continually burns and is never extinguished. It is as if at this point they have already begun to worship their God at Sinai. This sign strengthens the spirit of Moses, as he knew that Israel would be in the service of the King of kings . . . The idea that “they are My servants” and not servants of servants appears here for the first time – as if to say, they are no longer under the rule of Pharaoh. But this sign is only understood after their departure from Egypt and until then, the possibility that Moses will fail exists . . . This comes to teach us the need for patience and trust in God. (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 120)

What is the wisdom behind Professor Falk’s reading of the burning bush? According to Falk, Moses already senses that freedom from Egypt is not simply about personal liberation. Rather, the endeavor speaks to a larger, national mission of serving God. Already they are acknowledged to be God’s servants—and not merely the slaves of Pharaoh. Such a promise and aspiration is what encourages Moses in his mission. Yet, as Falk acknowledges, the symbol of the bush is not entirely understood until after the Exodus. Only when the Israelites reach Sinai will the sign, the narrative, and Israelite destiny become clearer. The challenge in our own lives is to recognize our own “burning bush” moments: when a sign appears, we must have the patience and faith to embrace it, understand it, and be inspired by it. Such signs have the potential of liberating us from modern “bonds of Egypt.”

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.