The desert boasts magnificent fauna. From elaborate cacti to colorful flowers to unusual trees, the landscape of the desert is replete with plant life that is unique not only in its beauty, but in its ability to withstand the harsh climate extremes.
With so many impressive choices, why would God first appear to Moshe in the lowly thorn bush? Surely if God wanted to send a message to Moshe He could have spoken to him from a “Western Wallflower” (alluding to the last remnant of the Beit Hamikdash), or the “Joshua Tree” (predicting Moshe’s successor), or at least the “Smoke Tree” (a much more apt choice for a burning bush). Not only is the choice of the thorn bush arguable, but the way that Hashem appeared within the bush raises questions.
The Torah tells us: “Moshe thought, ‘I will turn aside now and look at this great sight—why will the bush not be burned?’” (Exodus 3:3). Our commentators explain that Moshe was not merely seeing a thorn bush on fire. That would not constitute a “great sight”; brush fires are not uncommon in the heat of the desert. What Moshe saw was a thorn bush with a fire raging in its center, and contrary to the laws of nature, the fire did not spread. Rather, it was contained in the center, and the periphery of the bush remained fresh, untouched and oblivious to the inferno within. What message was Hashem conveying by appearing to Moshe in a fire in the center of the insignificant sneh (bush)?
In order to understand the message, we first have to understand how Moshe, the “prince of Egypt,” found his way to the desert of Midian. Moshe was raised in the lap of aristocracy, the adopted grandson of Pharaoh. When, as a young adult, he learned the truth about his heritage, he went out amongst the slaves, his biological brothers, to explore his roots and come to terms with his altered identity. Moshe chanced upon an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating one of the Jewish slaves. In an effort to protect the helpless man, Moshe killed the Egyptian. For a brief moment, this brave, rebellious deed seemed to solidify his loyalty and his identity as a Jew. The very next day, however, the course of his life took a dramatic sixty-year detour.
While again wandering among his people, Moshe confronted two Jewish men fighting with each other (the Midrash tells us they were the notorious trouble-making duo, Datan and Aviram). He appealed to them that it was bad enough that the Egyptians were oppressing them; why would they oppress each other? One of them flippantly responded, “Who appointed you as a . . . judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14). It was after this encounter that Moshe fled Egypt. He left because he realized that his crime was known (killing an Egyptian was unforgivable), and the law would eventually catch up with him. But more importantly, he left because he was disgusted with his Jewish brothers. Until that moment, Moshe had wondered why God would treat the Jews so harshly. But having been spit in the face and stabbed in the back by the people he was trying to help, Moshe concluded that these people were nothing but bitter slaves with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They deserve their fate. Moshe leaves, and he does not bother looking back.
Can we not empathize with Moshe for running away, believing there is no hope for redemption?
Fast forward to Moshe’s eightieth year. He is a humble shepherd, married with children, and part of a respected family in his community. And for all we know, this is the life he has led for the past sixty or so years. Hashem wants Moshe to serve as His messenger to Pharaoh, to be the instrument of the redemption. But how is God going to convince Moshe to give up his comfortable life in order to redeem a people that Moshe disowned? Hashem had to demonstrate to Moshe that the Jews were more than what he saw on the outside. True, God acknowledged by appearing in the lowly thorn bush, the Jews may seem brittle, thorny, ugly and unworthy. But that is just the exterior; Moshe could only see the exterior. What Hashem so beautifully showed Moshe by appearing in a fire in the center of the bush was what He could see—the fire burning within the hearts and souls of the people. Based on his limited vision, Moshe assumed that the fire had been extinguished; God showed him that it had only been enveloped by decades of suffering and exile. To accept the mantle of leadership, Moshe had to train his eyes on the potential that lies within, on the spiritual worth of the Jewish people.
The lesson of the burning bush is as relevant today as it was with Moshe. We live in a generation where it is easy to see the ugly, brittle exterior. We face so many challenges— financial, educational, religious—and the stress and emotions of dealing with these challenges can often camouflage the beauty within and reveal the thornier side of our people.
Like Moshe, we can say “Is it not bad enough that we are threatened by external enemies? Must we threaten each other?” Tiny little Israel fights for its survival and legitimacy amongst an ocean of enemies. Do we not want to throw our hands up in despair when incidents like what took place in Beit Shemesh occur? Can we not empathize with Moshe for running away, believing there is no hope for redemption?
Hashem’s message still rings true. The fire still burns within, no matter how many layers contain it. We at the OU, and so many of you who have partnered with us, have witnessed this “fire within” firsthand. Through the Jewish Student Union (JSU), the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), NCSY and numerous other programs, we have met young, unaffiliated Jews who don’t know an Aleph from a Bet, so out of touch are they with their Jewish identity. Yet once they are exposed to the message of Judaism in a relevant and meaningful way, the fire within can no longer be contained. Their souls emerge triumphantly through the layers of ignorance and assimilation. The lives of these young people are transformed. They become committed Jews, and some evolve into our finest leaders.
Hashem’s message to Moshe is that there is more to the Jewish people than meets the eye. No matter how badly they behave or how far removed they appear to be, do not give up on them. We are those people, and sadly, thousands of years later, we still sometimes resemble the lowly insignificant desert bushes. Sometimes we forget the powerful spiritual energy that lies within our core. This year, as we approach the holiday of Pesach, may we all be inspired by the message of the burning bush and continue to have faith in the potential of our people and do whatever is necessary to expose the fire within.