Shemot 5780 – The Burning Bush

This week’s parsha starts with the Jewish people enslaved by Pharaoh. Pharaoh loads the people up with cruel and pointless labor, intended to demoralize the people. Paranoid about the growing numbers of Israelites, Pharoah orders all male babies killed. The people were suffering; they cried out to God.

The dramatic turning point in the story – one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah – is when God calls out to Moses from a burning bush, and Moses answers the call. The Torah says,

An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.

Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”

And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Exodus 3:2

This is the starting point for the salvation of the Jewish people and everything that comes after, including the giving of the Torah. One midrash says God was calling to Moses before the bush was burning, but Moses was so preoccupied with his own thoughts he didn’t hear. God set the bush on fire to get Moses’s attention. 

The bush miraculously was on fire but was not consumed by the flames. 

There has been a great deal of speculation about the bush itself. The Hebrew word used here, sneh, is a very rare word – it only appears in the Torah twice, and both times it’s describing the burning bush. It’s possible that sneh is a Hebrew pun on Sinai, the place where the bush was burning. Most commentators say the sneh is a very lowly thornbush. The Catholics at Saint Catherine’s monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai claim they have the actual bush growing in their courtyard. That bush is a bramble, rubus sanctus. Just as Moses had to remove his sandals in the presence of the bush, the monks at the monastery require visitors to remove their shoes before coming into the presence of the bush. 

Many scholars say if the episode with the bush actually happened, it probably would have been either in Saudi Arabia or in Jordan, near Petra, so the bush at Saint Catherine’s is in all likelihood not the actual burning bush.

A couple of researchers proposed that the bush was actually a species known as Dictamnus, which at certain times emits so much volatile oil that lighting a match near the flowers or seedpods causes the plant to be enveloped by flame, which quickly goes out without harm to the plant. The only problem with that theory is the plant doesn’t actually grow in the Sinai.

Other religions also tell the story of the burning bush. The story is found in the Quran, and Bahais believe the bush was the voice of their founder, the Baha’u’llah. The Rastafarians believe the burning bush was cannabis, which might explain why Moses was hearing things. One Israeli professor, Benny Shanon has a similar theory, that the burning bush was a type of acacia tree that contains DMT, a hallucinogen. Shanon claims that the experiences you get consuming DMT are similar to the prophetic visions recorded elsewhere in the Bible.

The powerful imagery of the burning bush that was not consumed has been adopted as a symbol by many different religious groups, not just Jews. The Reformed Church of France, and many national Presbyterian churches all use the burning bush as a symbol. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the seminary for Conservative rabbis in New York, uses the burning bush as its symbol with the motto “and the bush was not consumed” in both Hebrew and English.

There are different interpretations as to why God chose a burning thornbush as a way to get Moses’s attention. One theory says that Moses was worried that Egypt was going to completely destroy the Jews. God showed him this magical bush to say that just as the bush is burning but isn’t consumed, Egypt may cause the Jews to suffer, but they won’t be destroyed. Rashi says the thornbush was chosen as a way for God to say, “when you suffer, I’m there in the thorns with you.” Yet another interpretation says the bush symbolizes the altar in the future Temple, where there was always a fire going. 

Another midrash says the point of choosing a thornbush, which is a very lowly and undistinguished plant, was to make the point that there is no place that is devoid of God’s presence, not even a thornbush.

And that’s a very important point. The first step in developing an awareness of God’s presence is to see the miraculous in everyday objects. There’s another midrash which says the bush had been sitting there burning for a very long time, and no one noticed it. What made Moses special, what made him worthy, was that he was paying attention to miracles. He noticed the miracle.

It was only after Moses turned to look that God called out to him. Moses had to be able to see the miracle in the thornbush first.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.” Having a sense of wonder, being able to appreciate the miraculous in everyday life, is the secret to finding the presence of God.

In the Amidah prayer we recited a little while ago, we said,

We thank You and sing Your praises-
for our lives that are in Your hands,
for our souls that are under your care,
for Your miracles that accompany us each day,
and for Your wonders and Your gifts that are with us
each moment – evening, morning, and noon

The miracles are all around us. Albert Einstein said, 

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

It’s a pity that most teens are in such a hurry to be grown up and sophisticated that they lose the sense of wonder they had as children – the sense of wonder doesn’t seem very sophisticated at all. Yet a sense of wonder can open your heart to many good things, including feeling the presence of God.

As a flight instructor I know all about aerodynamics. I can explain the principles of lift and Bernoulli’s Principle, I can look at an airplane in flight and practically see a big letter H for high pressure below the wing and a big letter L for low pressure above the wing, and yet still retain the sense of wonder that it’s an amazing thing that thousands of pounds of metal can carry me high up into the sky.

It’s not just our amazing technological creations that are wondrous. Yes, it’s amazing that we can get in a narrow metal tube and less than a day later find ourselves eating hummus in Jerusalem, or that we have a large percentage of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, in our pockets. But even the basic things in life – such as life itself – are amazing and miraculous. Love is a miracle. A beautiful sunset is a miracle.

If Moses really had good eyes, he would have seen the thornbush all by itself, without being on fire, is a miracle.

Any spiritual quest starts with us looking – with seeing the miracle that’s in front of our eyes, and seeing God’s presence in that miracle. May the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed be He, open our eyes and our hearts to see the miracles that are all around us,


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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