Moshe’s encounter with God at the burning bush resembles and perhaps anticipates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In both experiences of revelation, Moshe is on a lone journey when he encounters the divine amidst fiery conflagration atop a mountain. The Hebrew word used in the Torah for the burning bush is sneh, a near-anagram of Sinai, and indeed this week’s parsha, Shemot, explicitly identifies the site of Moshe’s first revelation as “Horev, the mountain of the Lord,” which is another name for Mount Sinai.
Both times, Moshe is shepherding his flock—first his sheep, and then the people of Israel—and both experiences of revelation change him fundamentally. And yet Moshe responds dramatically differently to each divine encounter.
Whereas the revelation at Sinai was foretold by God, the burning bush catches Moshe entirely unawares. An angel of God appears to him in the flames, and Moshe finds himself unable to avert his glance: “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (3:3). God, struck that Moshe turns to look, calls out to him and identifies Himself as the God of his ancestors. What catches Moshe’s attention is the unusualness of a bush that is not consumed; but what catches God’s attention is that Moshe notices: “When the Lord saw that he had turned to look, God called to him out of the bush” (3:4).
This is not the first time that God has chosen as his prophet the person who stops to notice. The midrash in Genesis Rabbah (39:1) relates a parable to illustrate God’s choice of Abraham. According to the midrash, Abraham may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a residential building ablaze. He said, “Is it possible that this building lacks someone to take care of it?” At that point, the owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the building.” Likewise, the midrash continues, Abraham asked, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?” And God responded, “I am the Master of the Universe.”
It is notable that in this midrash, God is not the building superintendent, but the owner; it is Abraham whom God will appoint to “care for the building” by teaching the world about monotheism. According to the midrash, Abraham was chosen by God because he was unable to keep walking along on his way when the world was on fire. In the face of so much injustice, he demanded to know who was in charge.
Moshe also notices conflagration, but unlike Abraham, he needs to be told what it signifies. God instructs Moshe to take off his shoes because he is standing on holy ground, and then tells him, “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heard their outcry… I am mindful of their sufferings” (3:7). God is essentially informing Moshe that He knows the world is on fire; His people are suffering and their cries have risen up to the heavens like fiery flames. And just as God previously appointed Abraham to care for the world of which He is master, this time God will appoint Moshe to do the job.
Moshe’s response to the divine call is somewhat surprising: The man who could not help but look now averts his glance: “And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (3:6). Moshe will again and again try to resist his mission, insisting that he is not a man of words and that Pharaoh will not heed him. But the Talmud (Berakhot 7a) regards Moshe’s response as praiseworthy. The rabbis state that as a reward for averting his glance, Moshe merited to have his countenance glow when he descended Mount Sinai following the giving of the tablets (Exodus 34:29). With this comment, the rabbis explicitly link the revelations at the sneh and at Sinai – Moshe’s behavior in the former determines the outcome of the latter.
And yet Moshe has changed by the time he reaches Mount Sinai – he is no longer averting his glance from God, but rather demanding to catch a glimpse of the divine: “Oh let me behold Your glory” (Exodus 33:18), he pleads following the sin of the golden calf. The continuation of this Talmudic passage once again juxtaposes the sneh and Sinai revelations to imagine a dialogue between God and Moshe in which God says, “When I wanted to show you my glory at the burning bush, you did not want to see it, as it is stated, ‘And Moshe concealed his face.’ But now that you want to see my glory at Sinai, as you said, ‘Oh let me behold Your glory,’ I do not want to show it to you” (Berakhot 7a). The rabbis depict God and Moshe as courting lovers who can’t quite get their timing right – as soon as one party tries to engage, the other loses interest. God, who chose Moshe because of his knack for noticing, tells Moshe at Sinai that there is a limit to how much even he can see and how close even he can come.
Moshe’s responses to these two revelations are captured in the angelic call-and-response of the Kedushah prayer, in which some angels ask “Where is the place of His presence?” and others respond, “The entire world is filled with His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Moshe at Mount Sinai longs to see God’s glory, like the angels who ask about the place of God’s presence. But Moses at the burning bush is so overcome by the fiery revelation that he averts his glance, all too aware that the entire world is saturated with divinity.
Perhaps our challenge, following Moshe, is to learn not to demand evidence of the divine—“where is the place of His presence”—and instead to train ourselves to notice the spark of God wherever it may be found – on a fiery mountain, in a small burning bush off the beaten track, in a sacred encounter. As Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil….
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod….
Nor can foot feel, being shod.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God because the whole world is filled with His glory. And we are charged to turn aside, take off our shoes, and feel the holiness of the ground beneath us – wherever we may find ourselves.