Sh’mot: Blindsided by the Burning Bush

Posted on January 5, 2024 by Harold Levin

This week, we begin studying the book of Exodus. The first chapter is called Sh’mot which translates to English as Names. I will focus my thoughts on one of the most famous stories found in the Torah.

God appears to Moses in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai, and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand: “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” Moses’ brother, Aaron, is appointed to serve as his spokesperson. In Egypt, Moses and Aaron assemble the elders of Israel to tell them that the time of their redemption has come. The people believe this; but Pharaoh refuses to let them go, and even intensifies the suffering of Israel.

Moses returns to God to protest: “Why have You done evil to this people?” God promises that the redemption is close at hand.

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal posed several questions which are a good starting point when trying to understand what happened with Moses and the burning bush:

Why does God use a flame within a bush as the mechanism for communicating with Moses?
Is this sighting a metaphor? What does it mean?
Is this sighting a provocation? Explain how this would work.
Is this sighting an answer to a question? What is the question and the answer?
Is this sighting a process? Who and what is it processing?Rashi selects the Midrash which alludes to the pain of the Almighty, omitting the parable and compressing the rest to a minimum…only this one best fits the situation of Israel, representing their doubts and despair and containing them assurance of deliverance, the answer to their cry which had ascended to the heavens.

Rabbi Elena Zelony says that the location of the burning bush as “Into the wilderness” can be translated as: far away into the desert, to the edge of the desert, behind the wilderness, and to the farthest end of the wilderness. This makes it unclear where exactly Moses was when he encountered this moment in his life.

Rashi tells us that the bush was seen by Moses in a flame of fire, i. e. in the very heart of (לב, lev) the fire. Similarly is לב lev used of inanimate objects in: (Deuteronomy 4:11) “in the heart of (לב) heaven”; (II Samuel 18:14) “in the midst of (לב) the terebinth”. Interestingly, the terebinth tree is similar to what we know today as the pecan tree. It is known to have a deeply complex root system. Several commentators say that God can be found within this tree, hence why it is a key part of the story of the burning bush.

Rabbeinu Bahya adds some insight into who is Moses and what his actions represent: “A rational scientific approach to our verse: seeing that a prophet would become frightened when he heard his name called for the first time, and as a result of his confusion, he would misunderstand the divine message which was to follow, his name is called a second time in order to give him time to collect his thoughts. After the second mention of his name he would receive the message God wanted him to receive.”

Think for a moment, if you were on a hike in the woods and came across something representing a bush on fire that was not being consumed. Would you be able to react swiftly? I know that I would likely be paralyzed for a fair amount of time! The concept of symbolism would definitely take me a few moments to kick in and then perhaps bring me back to real time thinking.

From Rabbi Arthur Strimling,

“The text says, Moses ‘saw, and look, the bush was burning with fire and the bush was not consumed.’ Now, this takes place in wilderness….And in this wilderness, which Moses wanders with his sheep, is huge and empty, so there is no need to put it out for fear of wider fire, just steer clear of it.

But Moses doesn’t steer clear, he looks; long enough to see that the bush is not only burning, but it is not consumed…. This bush is clearly none of his business, out of his way, but he just has to turn aside and look at it. And that reveals something deep about the man. He is a seeker, not just a seeker after justice, but a man seeking his destiny. He is living contentedly as a shepherd, with a loving father-in- law, a wife, a son, a nice job. He could just settle. But something is driving him to turn aside, to pay attention to oddities, possibilities, omens…. And, in the manner of this manifestation, appearing as a burning bush, God is also revealed as one who appears not only in high drama, but also sets subtle signs for us. Most of God’s appearances are in dramatic forms with big production values — a pillar of fire or on a mountain top in lightning and clouds. But here, Rashi points out, God is manifested in a bush, the humblest of plants – just a lousy little bush in the wilderness … burning. It took someone special to notice it.

Moses notices, and in that noticing ignites the engine of our entire history. How many other shepherds walked that way and either missed the bush or saw it was burning but didn’t look long enough to see the miraculous in it?”

In today’s world we all seem to get distracted and notice much of what is happening around us. So few people read the local weekly newspaper for the community they live in to the point that many of these publications have faded away. This means that awareness of concerns and issues on the local level are being ignored. Less and less of us care who is minding the fort as long as we are not burdened by anything which might take some of our time and energy. This leads to decision making on the local, state, federal, and global level being made by those who may not have our best interests at heart but who are happy to take control and govern in a way that potentially benefits only themselves and those who are a part of the school of thinking.

Rabbi Michelle Robinson sheds some light on this:

“We miss a whole host of things in our day-to-day lives…So common is this phenomenon that there’s a name for it: “inattentional blindness.” In other words, we all have blind spots that prevent us from seeing things that should be obvious, but, because we are focused on something else, we miss. It is a fact of all our lives. The researchers…highlight what they call the most fascinating aspect of human attention. “Not that we don’t notice so many things, but that we think that we DO [notice them].” “We vividly experience some aspects of our world,” they write, which leads to “the erroneous belief that we process all of the detailed information around us. In essence…we are completely unaware of those aspects of our world that fall outside [our] current focus of attention.”

Did God originally select Moses to be the one to deliver the message to Pharaoh or was Moses the only one who paid attention?

What would have happened if Moses kept on going and ignored the burning bush?

Would God have looked for another leader or would gave have turned a blind eye on the children of Israel?

Is it possible this could have led to mass destruction and none of us would be part of such a holy community?

I propose that we need at least one Moses, if not a whole group of Moseses to clean up some of the messes that have emerged in the last few decades.

Global warming and climate change, urban sprawl, destruction of our ecosystem, complete disrespect of authorities, deterioration of our educational systems, and a lack of tolerance for others regardless of their beliefs and practices represent just a small sampling of the reasons why we need to find a modern-day Moses to open their eyes and lead us down the right path.

Let’s hope and pray that someone like this emerges soon to guide each and every soul in the right direction. When we join together for Seders this year, we need to sing Eliahu Hanavi with renewed conviction.

Shabbat Shalom,

Harold Levin

Guest Leader