The Burning Bush is one of the most iconic images in all of Scripture. In parshas Shemos, as Moses shepherds a flock of sheep in the wilderness, God speaks to him for the first time, appearing in the image of a bush blazing with fire. God could have manifested in any number of ways, and so we must wonder why He chose this form in particular. What was the message for Moses, and what is the message for each of us today?
Rashi explains that the bush from which God spoke to Moses was a thorn bush, and He specifically chose this rather than any other type of tree to indicate that “I am with him (the Jewish people) in distress” (Psalms 91:15). The Midrash elaborates: “The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: ‘Don’t you sense that I am suffering just as Israel is suffering? Know that from the place that I am speaking with you, from the thorns, as it were, I am party to their suffering’” (Shemos Rabba 2:5).
God chose to appear in the thorn bush because He wanted us to know that He feels our pain!
This is a powerful and relevant message – particularly at this moment when we are experiencing so much trauma – but it raises an obvious question. If God does indeed experience our pain, then why doesn’t He alleviate it? God is all-powerful, and if He chooses to, He could relieve the suffering of His children and the concomitant “suffering” that He experiences Himself. Why does He not do so?
There is evidently some reason, and even some benefit, in the pain. This divine rationale remains unexplained, perhaps because it is beyond our mortal understanding. But the fact that God is “party to (our) suffering” is conveyed clearly, and this, in itself, does provide some relief. God is not unaware of our suffering, nor is He indifferent to it. He feels for us, He cares for us, He cries with us, so to speak, but He simultaneously knows that we will not only get through this, but we will gain from it tremendously. Every descent is for the sake of a subsequent ascent, the Sages teach us. There is no greater light than that which follows darkness, King Solomon explains.
Any parent knows that it is difficult to watch one’s children struggle. Yet we do not do their work for them, and we do not shield them from all challenges and tests. Were we to do so, they would never learn and grown and thrive. Nevertheless, we let them know that we feel their thorns. This empathy may not answer their questions or resolve their struggle, but it reminds them that they are not forgotten and not alone.
God’s fire appeared in the thorn bush and yet the bush was not consumed. His presence did not destroy the thorns. It did not eliminate our pain or instantly end the Egyptian oppression. The lesson from this is that God’s presence does not preclude pain, and the presence of pain does not indicate God’s absence.
From the burning bush, God instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and command him to “let my people go.” Moses doubts his ability to succeed in such a difficult mission, and God reassures him, saying “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). Rashi explains God’s response as follows: “Just as you saw the bush fulfilling its mission for me and it was not consumed, so will you go on your mission for me and you will not be harmed.”
Each of us is in the midst of a mission that we have been assigned by God. Each of us must face Pharaoh and his vicious army, sometimes in a spiritual sense only, and sometimes in a very real, physical sense. Such a mission is painful and difficult. It often feels as though we are caught in a sharp tangle of thorns from which we may never escape. But there is a fire of God burning within us. It is with us in our struggles, it feels our agony, and it fuels our persistence.
The flames burn constantly, but the barbs and thistles remain. With the recognition that God is here in the thorns, the inevitable pokes and stabs become less painful. With the promise that He accompanies us and that He will not allow us to be consumed, we are confident that we will soon be victorious in the mission that He assigns.