The Burning Bush: Symbol of Jewish Suffering and Survival

Published November 30, -0001

Why did G-d first reveal himself to Moshe in a burning thorn bush? The Midrash saw this as evoking a broad range of symbolic themes and prophetic visions for the future destiny of the Jewish People.

Rabbeinu Bachya regards the burning bush as a revelation that our nation, despite its hardships, is eternal. “The burning bush conjures up the image of a lowly nation in iron chains, constantly aflame with suffering. Threatened on all sides, against all odds, the Jewish people continue to endure miraculously among their enemies.”

This interpretation is found in Midrash Sh’mot, regarding the Exile in Egypt: “Just as the bush burns but is not consumed, so too, Egypt (and Iran) can’t destroy the Jewish people.”

Yet another explanation of Rabbeinu Bachya follows the line of Rambam. Seeing the burning bush represented Moshe’s striving to conceptualize G-d, which led to his achievement of prophecy. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, the burning bush represents matter in the universe, which remains unconsumed even though it is cloaked in Heavenly fire. Moshe investigated the way that form and matter combine to produce innovation in the universe, and he found G-d the Creator to be the root of all existence.

This interpretation is embodied in the Midrash, as well (Sh’mot Rabba 1:9), “From the burning bush we learn that no place, even a bush, is devoid of the Divine Presence.” Nonetheless, here various Jewish schools of thought branch out in different directions.

The Chassidism of the Ba’al Shem Tov understands this idea as meaning that no place is devoid of the Divine Presence, including both light and darkness (good and seemingly negative phenomena). This idea finds clear expression in Degel Machanei Efrayim on Ki Teitzei regarding the verse, “If you come across a bird’s nest” (Devarim 22:6).

“I heard from my grandfather and master (the Ba’al Shem Tov) that the Shechina descends from the highest to the lowest level. And that this is the meaning of the verse (Nechemiah 9:6), “You sustain them all”. Even when an individual sins, he is still surrounded by the Shechina, without which no person would have the power to perform any act, even to move a muscle. It is that which sustains him, investing him with energy and life. This is, as it were, the Shechina in exile.”

This idea aroused great opposition from the Vilna Gaon, and is one of the factors that led to the persecution and excommunication of Chassidism. At the end of Metzaraf Ha’Avoda, we find quoted a letter from the Ba’al HaTanya who offers an in-depth analysis of the two views. He explains the view of the Vilna Gaon that one should not interpret “No place is devoid of Him” literally, but rather in the sense of Yeshayahu 6:3: “The whole earth is full of His glory,” meaning that hashgacha – Divine Providence – is everywhere. He notes that as a result of this contention, the Chassidic works Toldos and Shivchei Ba’al Shem Tov were burned.

The Sefas Emes clarifies this Kabbalistic idea in various ways. For him, the statement “no place is devoid of the Shechina” points to the purpose of galut – exile – namely, that Israel must everywhere reveal the Divine Light. Galut is from the same root as hitgalut – revelation. Through the dispersion of the Jewish people, “G-d’s will become revealed everywhere and concerning every matter.” He explains that the burning bush symbolizes holiness burning brightly despite the presence of the “thorns”; i.e., the profane. Moshe was puzzled by the holy fire’s endurance in the face of these “thorns”, yet G-d wished to demonstrate that even within the very depths of darkness is stored a great light, as in the verse (Sh’mot 1:12), “The more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more the Israelites proliferated and spread.”

Our Sages, interpreting the burning bush, state that just as a rosebush produces both flowers and thorns, so too the Jewish people produce both great Tzadikim and terrible sinners.

The vision of the burning bush therefore makes clear the historic and spiritual essence of Israel, the phenomenon of good and evil confronting each other and G-d’s promise (Vayikra 26:44), “I will not grow so disgusted with them nor so tired of them that I would destroy them.” Moshe was so impressed by the greatness of the vision of the burning bush that he said (Sh’mot 3:3), “I will turn aside to see this great sight.” The burning bush, symbol of Jewish suffering, was a harbinger of our future success, i.e. that Israel will exist forever, despite the threats of the President of Iran.