Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was reading the weekly portion for this coming Shabbat, and was bothered by the famous story of the burning bush. Why would God reveal himself to Moses for the first time in a lowly bush, rather than something more fitting for His honor, like a tree or a mountain?
Your question is right on — the Midrash relates that a Gentile scholar posed your question to R’ Yehoshua ben Korcha. The answer is that G-d wanted to show Moshe, from their very first encounter, that He would stick by the Jews even in their lowest times. Rashi comments on that verse (Shemot/Exodus 3:2), “G-d spoke from a bush and not from another tree, to show that ‘I am with them in their times of pain.’” G-d’s love for the Jews will take Him to the worst places in our exiles, and will not totally forsake us even when we have sunk to the lowest spiritual levels, similar to the lowly bush.
The point of the encounter was, as the verses relate, to let Moshe know that G-d had heard the Jews’ cries and had seen and felt their pain in their servitude to Egypt.
What did Moshe do to merit this revelation? The answer lies in a previous verse: “It happened in those days [of slavery] that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens…” (ibid 2:11).
Although Moshe was living in the palace and his Jewish identity was not known by Pharaoh, he knew who he was, and went out to feel the pain of his brethren. Rashi comments that he “put his eyes and heart to feel their pain.” He put his shoulders to the plow and helped the Jews in their slave labor. During that incident he killed an Egyptian who was striking a Jew, causing Moshe to flee for his life.
Later, as a shepherd for Jethro, Moshe was running after an escaped sheep, and came across the burning bush. The Midrash explains that since Moshe had “gone down” from his lofty place in the palace to care about the suffering of fellow Jews, he merited the vision of the bush where G-d reveals that He, too, goes down from His lofty place to be with the Jews. It was precisely the job of shepherd, like the forefathers before him, that helped train him in his mission to care about every Jew, as the shepherd cares for every sheep. This is the hallmark of a truly great leader, emulating the care of the Al-mighty for each individual, not just collectively for the entire klal. In the merit of Moshe’s caring for each Jew and the entire Jewish nation, he was chosen as our historic, eternal leader.
This caring would remain Moshe’s trademark for the next 40 years of his leadership, casting aside his own honor and going down to the people. Time and time again, when the Jews performed their most heinous crimes, Moshe was there for them, falling on his face before the Al-mighty in prayer and beseeching their forgiveness, often at great personal cost to himself.
Moshe’s feeling for the pain of fellow Jews was manifest in the war with the Amalekites (Shemot 17:8-17). Moshe stood on the mountain to pray for the Jews fighting in the valley until he became tired, and asked for a rock to sit upon to continue his prayers. The Talmud asks, couldn’t they bring him a chair to sit upon? The answer, says the Talmud, is that Moshe refused to sit on a comfortable chair as long as Jews were in the trenches at war. He was “with them in their troubles.”
This trait of Moshe is one of the cornerstones of the mussar movement, based upon the Mishnaic statement of “hanosei b’ol im chaveiro,” or “carrying the yoke with your friend,” making his load into your own load. This is an important lesson to remember when our brethren are in the trenches fighting in Gaza, and Jews nearby are under siege. We need to “put our eyes and hearts” to “be with them in their troubles,” offering them our prayers and any other way we can to assist them. May we merit a true and lasting peace in Israel and throughout the world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,