And an angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within a bush. And he saw that the bush burned with fire but the bush was not consumed. (Sefer Shemot 3:2)
1. Moshe’s first prophecy and its remarkable message
Parshat Shemot opens with a description of the enslavement and persecution of Bnai Yisrael by the Egyptians. Then, the Torah introduces Moshe. The Torah describes the circumstances surrounding his birth and his rescue from death by Paroh’s daughter. Moshe attempts to defend his people from the cruelty of the Egyptians and to promote greater harmony among Bnai Yisrael. As a result of these efforts, he kills an Egyptian task-master who is beating a Jew. He is forced to flee Egypt and resettles in Midyan and becomes a shepherd for his father-in-law Yitro.
Moshe is caring for his flock when he encounters an angel of Hashem. This angel presents himself as a flame burning in the midst of a bush. Amazingly, the fire burns intensely within the bush but the bush is not consumed.
This encounter introduces one of the most significant moments in the history of humanity. In this encounter, Moshe will be directed by Hashem to lead Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt and into the Land of Israel. Moshe will be commanded to communicate specific messages in Hashem’s name to his people and to Paroh. He will be told that he will perform wonders and miracles and that he will lead the people to Sinai where they will serve Hashem.
Hashem had spoken to the Patriarchs but he had not selected them to act as His spokesperson. Neither had He appointed the Patriarchs to perform wondrous miracles on the scale of those that would be performed by Moshe. In other words, this encounter introduced a relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael and a degree of Divine revelation that had never before occurred.
And Moshe said: I will now turn and I will see the great vision – why the bush does not burn. And Hashem saw that he had turned to see and He called to him from the bush and He said, “Moshe.” And he said, “I am here.” (Sefer Shemot 3:3-4)
2. Moshe’s response to his first prophecy and its significance
Perhaps the most interesting element of this encounter is the Torah’s description of the events that took place immediately after Moshe observed the wondrous flame and bush. The Torah describes these events in remarkable detail. Upon seeing the flame and bush, Moshe says to himself that he will turn and study this great vision and explore the phenomenon. In other words, the Torah points out that Moshe made a very conscious and intentional decision to look at the bush and flame more closely and to study it. Why is this detail of the encounter so important?
The Torah’s detailed description continues. The Torah explains that when Hashem saw that Moshe had turned to look more carefully at the flame and bush, He addressed Himself to Moshe. In other words, the Torah wishes to communicate that Moshe’s first prophecy and communication with Hashem required that he turn to the bush and study it. Hashem only addressed Moshe when and because He saw that Moshe had turned to the bush and sought to better understand it. Why did Hashem only address Moshe after he turned to more carefully study this wondrous phenomenon? Why was Moshe’s response essential?
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that Moshe’s encounter with this flame and bush was the first of the wonders with which he would be involved. It was a precursor to the other miracles that he would perform. Hashem initiated this first prophecy with this wonder as evidence of the Divine revelation that would occur in Egypt. Through Moshe, Hashem would perform other remarkable wonders that would confirm His sovereignty over the universe and His relationship with His prophet Moshe.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the Torah is communicating an important lesson regarding prophecy and the prophet’s relationship with Hashem. The prophet is not a passive instrument in the process of prophecy. Instead, he is engaging in seeking knowledge and understanding. Prophecy is a response to the prophet’s quest for enlightenment. The Torah explains that Moshe’s response to his observation of the bush and its flame was essential to the prophecy. He was moved to understand the wonder and to uncover its secrets. Hashem called to Moshe and spoke to him only in response to Moshe’s pursuit of wisdom and understanding.
3. According to the Midrash, the bush appeared to Moshe in a vision
Maimonides and many others disagree with Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the Torah narrative. Unlike Ibn Ezra, they contend that Moshe did not see an actual bush and flame. Moshe experienced a prophetic vision. The vision of the bush and flame were intended as a parable. Moshe was presented with this parable and invited to contemplate its meaning.
The Midrash Rabbah sides with Maimonides’ position. The Midrash observes that Moshe said, “I will now turn and I will see the great vision – why the bush does not burn.” The Midrash assumes that Moshe was not speaking to himself. He was addressing himself to the other shepherds that were with him. The Midrash continues and explains that none of the other shepherds accompanied Moshe to look more closely at the bush. They did not see the bush that so fascinated Moshe. The bush and its flame existed only in his mind. The other shepherds could not share his prophetic encounter.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l points out that this interpretation is supported by the passage that introduces the encounter. The passage states: And an angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within a bush. The pasuk specifies that the angel appeared to Moshe and to no other.
This interpretation of the passages presents a new problem. If Moshe’s encounter with the bush and its flame was a prophetic vision unfolding in his mind, then what is the meaning of the Torah’s description of his response? What is the significance of Moshe turning to the bush and announcing his attention to investigate it? Why does Hashem suspend His communication with Moshe pending this awaited response?
In order to answer this question it is important to again recognize that the prophecy that awaited Moshe would communicate astounding news. Hashem would reveal to Moshe that He was poised to enter into a unique relationship with him, to fulfill His promise to the Patriarchs that He would redeem their descendants and give them possession of the Land of Israel, and that He would perform wonders and miracles that would reveal His sovereignty to Bnai Yisrael and humanity. In short, this prophecy would require that Moshe envision, understand, and embrace a radically different view of reality.
In his comments on these passages, Rashi explains that when Moshe said, “I will now turn” he was saying, “I will turn from here and approach there.” What does Rashi intend to communicate in this elaboration upon Moshe’s words?
On the third day he lifted his eyes and he saw that place from a distance. (Sefer Beresheit 22:4)
And Avraham said to his lads: Remain here with the donkey and I and the lad will go there. We will prostrate ourselves and we will return to you. (Sefer Beresheit 22:5)
4. Avraham and Yitzchak’s journey to the site of the Akeydah
The above passages are found in the Torah’s account of the binding of Yitzchak – the Akeydah. Hashem commands Avraham to take his son Yitzchak and to offer him as a sacrifice upon a mountaintop that Hashem would reveal. Avraham and Yitzchak journey forth in search of the mountain selected by Hashem. They are accompanied by two companions. According to our Sages these companions were Avraham’s servant Eliezer and son Yishmael. On the third day of their journey Avraham sees in the distance the mountain selected by Hashem.
How did Avraham know that this mountain that he saw in the distance was the site selected for the Akeydah? The Midrash explains that Avraham observed that a cloud hovered over the distant peak. He asked Yitzchak, “My son, do you see what I see?” Yitzchak responded, “Yes.” He asked their companions, “Do you see what I see?” They responded, “No.” When Avraham heard their response, he concluded that they could see no better than their donkey. He immediately instructed them, “Remain here with the donkey.” 
What does this Midrash intend to communicate? Rav Soloveitchik explains that Avraham and Yitzchak were prepared to embark upon an intense and exalted spiritual journey. Yishmael and Eliezer had been their companions on their arduous journey – to this point. However, the spiritual mountain that they would now climb was beyond the ken or capacity of these two faithful companions. They could neither envision the objective – the distant mountaintop – nor master its ascent. Why? They shared the vision of the donkey. Like the donkey, they understood and lived in a material reality. They could not break free from the shackles of their material conception of reality and embrace the spiritual aspirations and vision of Avraham and Yitzchak. Eliezer and Yishmael had traveled as far as they could. They could proceed no further.
Now, Rashi’s comments can be understood. Rav Soloveitchik explains that Moshe understood that in order to understand the message of the bush and its flame, and to enter into this prophetic communion with Hashem, he must turn aside. He must leave the path he has walked and take a different path that will bring him to the bush. This means that he must turn aside from his accustomed manner of perceiving the reality. He must be prepared to adopt a completely new perspective and redefine the realm of the possible. Moshe’s engagement in the prophecy can only proceed through his shedding of his previous notions. He must study and consider the vision of the bush and the prophecy unfettered by these comfortable, familiar, but obsolete notions.
1. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Extended Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 3:3.
2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 3:4.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 45.
4. Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelymah vol 3, p 124.
5. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, recorded lecture on Parshat Shemot.
6. Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelymah vol 1, p 781.
7. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, recorded lecture on Parshat Shemot. Rav Soloveitchik develops an original interpretation of the meaning of the parable of the bush and its flame. He interprets this parable as a preamble and necessary introduction to the balance of the prophecy. In order for Moshe to master the meaning of this parable, he was required to abandon specific views related to the message of the parable and to adopt a fresh perspective communicated through the vision. The specifics of Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the parable require a separate discussion.