Why a thorn bush? What makes a Sneh so special? Why does the manifestation of God’s presence come to Moshe our teacher in a thorn bush?
Now, maybe that is a klutz kasha, a clumsy question. The paradigmatic clumsy question, a kashe fun a maaseh, a question from an incident. It happened that way. It happened to happen that way.
Actually, I do not know why a kasha fun a maaseh equals a clumsy question. Perhaps someone will explain that to me someday.
But the thorn bush is not just a case of “it happened to happen that way.” If God appeared to Moshe our teacher in a thorn bush, the Master of the Universe certainly intended something. Furthermore, the thorn bush appears in the written record of the incident: that makes it a literary symbol. By every literary theory, we expect symbols to be overdetermined, to be polyvalent, or, without the fancy terminology, to make sense in nearly every way we look at them.
So what did the ancient rabbis make of the thorn bush?
I went browsing through the Torah Sheleimah to find out. That work collects nearly every scrap of material from the early rabbis, organized according to the verses in the Torah mentioned in each scrap, each scrap bound up with its variant texts, including explanatory notes, all by Rabbi Menahem Kasher (1895-1983); Rabbi Kasher published this work for four of the five books. After his death, his successors have added volumes for the beginning of Devarim.
What did I find?
A non-Jew asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha, “Why did God see fit to speak to Moshe from a thorn bush?”
He said to him: “If he had spoken to him from a carob tree or a fig tree, you would have asked me the same question” (That amounts to calling this a klutz kasha.) But it is not possible to leave you with a blank answer, why from a thorn bush? To teach you that there is no place empty of his presence, not even a thorn bush (Shemot Rabbah 81:9).
If God had spoken to him from a fruit tree, one might declare him the God of all productive or good things, and declare the rest of space godforsaken, even the domain of some other power. Therefore the thorn bush teaches us something about God.
Rabbi Yehoshua says: Why did God reveal himself to Moshe from the midst of a thorn bush? Because as long as Israel was in pain, it was as if God had pain before him, as it says “In all their pains, it was painful for him” (Isaiah 63:9) and “I am with him in pain” (Psalm 91:15). (Mekhilta deRabbi Shimon bar Yohai 2a).
Again, the thorn bush teaches us about God, who has empathy for Israel in its time of trouble.
Rabbi Elazar says . . . because the thorn bush is the lowliest of the trees in the world, to teach us that Israel had descended, at that time, to the lowest possible level, and God descended to rescue them, as it says, “And I descended to rescue them” (Lev. 23:40). (Mekhilta Shemot).
The thorn bush also teaches us about the children of Israel.
Pinhas the Cohen, son of Rabbi Hama: Consider the thorn bush! When a person puts his hand into the thorn bush, he does not notice. When he takes his hand out of the thorn bush, it gets scratched. So too, Israel, when it went down to Egypt, not a creature noticed. It came out of Egypt with signs, wonders and war (Shemot Rabbah 81:9).
The thorn bush teaches us about the exodus from Egypt.
From the thorn bush: just as the thorn bush grows on any water, so Israel grows only by the merit of the Torah, which is called “water,” as it says, “Oh, all who are thirsty, come and drink water” (Isaiah 54:1). (Shemot Rabbah 82:9).
This and much more appears collected in Torah Sheleimah.
To which I add: the thorn bush teaches us about the children of Israel. We are never destined to be the most lofty, glorious, and powerful of nations (Deut. 7:7). We always appear small, possibly even nasty, like a thorn bush, and endangered by flames. But we are not consumed. The flames do not cease, but they may indicate the divine presence.
And the thorn bush teaches us about Moshe our teacher. Moshe went out of his way to inspect the burning bush. He said “I will turn aside and see this great sight: Why is this thorn bush not consumed?” (Exodus 3:3). He had intellectual curiosity. I have suggested in a previous talk that perhaps Moshe was not the first person to see this mysterious burning thorn bush. Perhaps some other people just walked past the burning bush, thinking it no concern of theirs, or having no interest. Moshe qualifies as our leader, in part, because he wants to understand.
Moshe our teacher resembles the thorn bush. In his own estimation, he does not feel adequate to the task of taking Israel out of Egypt. He is “the most humble of men” (Numbers 12:3). The task takes him so far out of his comfort zone that he argues with God to choose someone else.
This teaches us about leadership: the best leader we ever had did not feel entitled.
The thorn bush works as a polyvalent symbol. Look at the thorn bush as a symbol of God, of slavery in Egypt, of the Exodus, of the leadership of Moshe our teacher, of the conditions of the survival of the Jewish people – however we look at the thorn bush, we find the symbol evocative.