Anatomy of a Fire
The scene has always fascinated thinkers, artists and people from every
walk of life. Moses stands in the distance looking up in awe at the
mountaintop where a bush is burning vigorously - without being consumed!
Suddenly, the voice of Hashem speaks to him from amidst this wondrous
spectacle, commanding him to remove his shoes and come nearer. This is the
setting in which Moses is appointed as the divine messenger to go down to
Egypt and lead the Jewish people to freedom.
But why did Hashem choose to communicate through such a spectacular
manifestation as an indestructible burning bush? Why didn’t He address
Moses directly as He would any other prophet? And why did He command Moses
to remove his shoes before coming near?
The commentators explain that, although he had fled Egypt many years
before, Moses never forgot the plight of his unfortunate Jewish brothers
and sisters in Egyptian bondage. Even as he lived in the relative serenity
of Midian, he could find no peace. His mind was filled with images of Jews
struggling under heavy burdens of bricks and cement, suffering the
tonguelashes and whiplashes of their Egyptian taskmasters. What would
happen to the Jewish people? How long would they have to suffer such
terrible agonies? These questions gave Moses no rest. He himself may have
been in Midian, but his heart was enslaved with his people amidst the
bricks and mortar of Egypt.
Hashem provided the answers to his questions in the most vivid form
through the metaphor of the burning bush. The bush sitting alone atop a
mountain in the wilderness symbolized the Jewish people trapped in the
desperate desolation of exile and enslavement, stripped of their physical
freedom and their spiritual greatness. The fire symbolized the terrible
suffering of the Jewish people. But fire is an ambivalent thing. It is a
destroyer, but it can also give warmth and light. A fire is raging inside
this bush, Hashem was telling Moses, but there is another aspect to this
fire which you cannot see. The Divine Presence resides within this very
fire. The terrible ordeal which this fire represents will not destroy the
Jewish people. On the contrary, it is a crucible which will forge them
into a great people, and cement an everlasting bond between Myself and
them, My chosen people. It will make them strong spiritually, and it will
lead on the golden path of their destiny to the Giving of the Torah.
But why was it so difficult for Moses to view the suffering and
afflictions of exile as an indispensable stage in Hashem’s master plan?
The answer to this question, the commentators explain, was implicit in
Hashem’s command that Moses remove his shoes. Shoes empower and inhibit us
at the same time. They help us walk on all types of terrain, but in order
to accomplish this, they prevent the toes from exercising their sense of
touch. The physical aspect of a person has a similar effect on him. It
allows his soul to function in the physical world, but in doing so, it
obscures his spiritual perception. The exile might seem inexplicable to
Moses because he was “wearing his shoes,” so to speak, because he was
viewing it through the eyes of a mortal.
“Remove your shoes!” Hashem commanded him. Transcend your physical
existence! Look with the spiritual eyes of the pure soul! Behold, the
burning bush is not consumed! The promise symbolized by the burning bush -
that the loving hands of Hashem are always there under the raging currents
of our history - has been our consolation for thousands of years. Even in
the best of times, we are in need of that consolation. Even as we enjoy
prosperity and status in the Diaspora, our holy Temple, the glorious crown
jewel of our nation, still lies in ruins, and our people are dispersed to
the far corners of the earth. Even as we enjoy an uneasy respite in this
seemingly endless exile, we still suffer physical persecution and
spiritual deprivation. But if we look past our “shoes,” we, too, will
sense the Divine Presence among us. We, too, will discern the light that
shines even in the densest darkness.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.