From the simple reading of the Torah it seems that God revealed himself to Moshe just because he stopped to look at a curious sight – a burning bush that was not consumed by fire.
“Moshe said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’ When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him from inside the bush”: (Exodus 3:3-4)
However Midrash Tanchuma adds an entirely different level of meaning. God revealed himself to Moshe because “he recognized the pain.” According to the commentators to Midrash Tanchuma, the “Burning Bush” was actually a test of Moshe’s perception and sensitivity.
Moshe passed the sensitivity test while he was still in Pharaoh’s palace
Instead of settling for an easy life among the Egyptian elite, Moshe identified with the pain of his enslaved brethren: “Moshe went out among his brothers and felt their suffering” (Exodus 2:11)
He killed an Egyptian task masker who was beating a Jewish slave. The Midrash fills in a detail which makes the story even more heart wrenching. The slave discovered that the task master had relations with the slave’s wife without her consent. When the taskmaster realized that his slave knew what he did, it drove the taskmaster to torment his slave even more.
According to the Midrash, Moshe understood what transpired through divine spirit. The twisted nature of the cruelty was too much for Moshe. This is one explanation among the commentaries what the Midrash meant when it said that Moshe “recognized the pain.” When Moshe looked at the burning bush, it symbolized for him the pain of that Jewish slave and of all the Jewish People.
Because Moshe put his life in danger to save a fellow Jew, God already decided to make him the redeemer. In the words of Midrash Tanchuma:
“God said: ‘the righteous Moshe was willing to give his life for my children and had to flee to Midyan, I will appoint him as their redeemer.’”
What need was there for the burning bush
If Moshe was already imbued with God’s divine spirit and had already proven his devotion to his people, why did God wait to introduce Himself to Moshe at the burning bush?
According to the Midrashic commentary “Eitz Yoseph,” Moshe looked at the bewildering site of the burning bush and understood exactly what it meant. It was a divine portrayal of what God was “feeling” – the extreme suffering of the Jewish People. Perhaps the flames represented the anguish of the people. The miracle of the fire not consuming the bush may have represented a miraculous deliverance. A people who were destined to emerge unscathed.
Moshe’s test was twofold. Not only did he need to feel the pain of his brethren, but his divine spirit had to be finely tuned to the concept that God was feeling their pain as well.
A deeper pain
According to the commentary “Be-er Amorim, Moshe perceived something even deeper. It wasn’t just that God was feeling the pain of the Jewish people, Moshe perceived that God Himself was in pain. An idea beautifully expressed in Psalms: “When my nation is in pain I too am with them in pain.” (Psalms 91:15). It was this level of spiritual awareness that Moshe evidently needed in order for God to recruit him to redeem the Jewish People.
The dialogue between God and Moshe
Perhaps, with these ideas in mind, the verses in our Parsha that we started with can take on an entirely different meaning:
“Moshe said, ‘since I already feel their pain, when I saw this highly significant sight, I understood exactly why the bush did not burn up.”’
To which God answered
“Since Moshe had the sensitivity to understand the pain that I’m in, I will call to him from inside this symbol of my pain – the burning bush.”
The message of the Midrash seems clear. A true Jewish leader is someone who is not only pained by the suffering of his people, he has the ability to perceive God’s pain as well.