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Parshah Shemot: Burning Bush? What Burning Bush?

Susannah Zisk

January, 2009


Burning bush? What burning bush? 

“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?’” (3:2-3) 

Now, what if Moses had chosen to ignore this bizarre image? Imagine how different our Jewish narrative would have been had he simply continued minding his own sheep. Fortunately for us he clearly possessed, at the very least, a sense of awareness of his surroundings, a curiosity about the world. Little did he know at this point what that would mean for him or for his people. 

But his eventual acceptance of the burning bush as a sign of god’s presence and power imply something more than mere attentiveness – it indicates an openness to seemingly improbable possibilities. That glance, that noticing something unusual out of the corner of his eye, was a turning point in the life of Moses and of the Jewish people. Fortunately for us, his willingness to take that closer look lifts him out of his quiet life as a shepherd and thrusts him into a central role in myth and history. 

Even so, Moses wants proof of what he already knows to be true – that he had been spoken to by god – worried that the Israelites would not believe his strange tale. So god provides proof in the form of a rod that turns into a snake, and water that turns to blood. Sometimes speaking truth to power requires a little back-up, especially when the truth you have to tell carries within it the necessity for profound and irreversible change. 

I suppose that if any of us were to see a bush go up in flames yet remain unburned we would assume it was made of some high-tech material, carrying out the will of scientists, not god, as is appropriate to the era in which we live. But I can’t help wondering: What are we missing when we are so quick to provide a logical explanation? What might we be failing to notice? Where might our lives lead if only we’re willing to pay attention? What is our burning bush, individually and collectively? 

Maybe the fact that the bush was not consumed is saying that we ourselves will not be consumed by our own metaphorical “burning bush” – that through such challenges we can achieve greatness rather than destruction as we so often fear. But we have to be willing to do the work over the long term; flashes of insight fade unless we do something to make them last. The burning bush was only the beginning for Moses – it took much hardship and 40 years of wandering in the desert before he achieved his goal of bringing the Israelites to the promised land. 

Today as we know this land has been too much promised, to too many different people all clamoring for supremacy. Each side has their arguments for why they are more deserving, their signs and symbols of superiority, their “proof” that they are the land’s rightful inhabitants. What both sides lack are leaders with a true openness to new possibilities, even improbable ones, and the courage to make them real. Just as in biblical times the people require proof of their leaders’ efficacy, only this time magic tricks won’t do; it will need to be in the form of treaties signed, borders opened, rocket attacks halted.

Like Moses, we may not be well spoken or inclined to lead. Like him we may be confused, panicked even, about what is being demanded of us, and of the consequences of either refusing the task or of failing at it. But, as Moses learned, these fears do not get us off the hook of trying to meet the challenges of our day. 

Flashes of insight such as occurred to Moses so long ago, dramatic and promising though they may be, are worthless if not acted upon. Just think where we, the descendants of Israelite slaves, might be had Moses turned, seen the bush that burned without being consumed, and simply stood by and watched as the flames reached toward the sky.

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784