Parashat Shemot: "The Bush Burned with Fire"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

 

CHASSIDUT
by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion

 


ParAshat Shemot:

 

"THe Bush burned with fire"

 

 

            In this week's parasha, God appears to Moshe Rabbenu for the first time in the burning bush. To a great extent, this is a "first" not only with respect to Moshe. At the beginning of parashat Vaera, God distinguishes between the way in which He had appeared to the patriarchs and the way in which He will henceforth appear to Moshe and the people of Israel:

 

And I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Ya'akov, by the name of God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by My name, the Lord (the Tetragrammaton), I was not known to them. (Shemot 6:3)

 

            We shall not enter here into a discussion of the deeper aspects of this distinction. Let us suffice with the fact that from now on God will reveal Himself in the world in a new manner, and that this phenomenon begins with the burning bush.

 

            God's revelation in the burning bush is accompanied by a supernatural phenomenon that surprises Moshe and arouses his curiosity:

 

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed. And Moshe said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moshe, Moshe. And he said, Here I am. And He said, Do not come near: put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place on which you did stand is holy ground. Moreover, He said, I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya'akov. And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. (Shemot 3:2-6)

 

            The great Chassidic thinkers view the incident of the burning bush as a model for spiritual encounter with the Divine at different levels and in different manners. Thus, they attempt to interpret the various elements in the story as symbols for the mental and spiritual states that accompany every process of drawing spiritually closer to God.

 

"But the bush was not consumed"

 

            Chassidic thought, in its usual manner, tries to deepen our understanding of the biblical passage and provide each word with independent existential meaning.

 

The sight of the bush – a thorny bush, engulfed in flames but nevertheless not being consumed – is a miraculous sight, which comes to teach Moshe that this is not a natural phenomenon, but rather a deviation from the natural order, which demands his attention. This is the way to understand the words of Moshe: "I will now turn aside, and see this great sight."

 

This interpretation does not explain why a bush was chosen to convey this message or why a fire was necessary. Why was a miracle of this sort performed? R. Ephraim of Sudylkow, grandson of the Besht, enters into the thick of the matter:

 

"And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush… And Moshe said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush… And He said… put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place on which you did stand is holy ground… Moreover, He said, I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya'akov…." We may say about this what God in His mercy and great love granted me in my youth, that which I heard from my grandfather [the Besht], of blessed memory. The alien thoughts that come to a person during prayer [come to him] to repair and raise the holy sparks that are clothed in those thoughts. One must know how to raise them and join them to their source. For example, if he was visited by evil thoughts of fornication, God forbid, he should understand that they come from the source of great lovingkindness that fell from its source as it spread downward from on high to an exceedingly low and base level, and it must be raised and rejoined to its source which is supreme lovingkindness (chesed). And similarly, if he is visited by thoughts of some external fear, he should join himself to the source that is the supreme fear (yir'a), source of all fear. And similarly, when he thinks about some greatness and bragging, he should join himself to the quality of glory [tif'eret] that is the source of all bragging. Understand this. This is alluded to here by the verse, for the bush symbolizes alien and evil thoughts, in the manner of "As thorns cut down" (Yeshaya 33:12), which alludes to wicked people, kelipot, evil and alien thoughts, and bad and evil thoughts. This is what the verse states: "And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush." That is, in the midst of his service with fiery excitement and great communion, comes to him the bush, i.e., the aforementioned alien thoughts. "And Moshe said, I will now turn aside." That is, I will empty out my thoughts and remove anything that troubles my mind. "And see [this great sight,] why the bush is not burnt. That is, he greatly wondered how any alien thought could come close to him and interrupt him from his service, for all the kelipot and all the alien thoughts must necessarily be burnt and consumed by his holy breath, his excitement and his great communion with God, blessed be He. "And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see." That is, owing to God's great lovingkindness and goodness, immediately, "when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see," and that he yearned to know the truth of the matter, immediately, He appeared to him and revealed Himself to him, from the midst of those alien thoughts. This is: "God called to him out of the midst of the bush" and revealed to him the secret of "put off your shoes from off your feet." That is, he should see to remove the evil from those thoughts and bring them to the aspect of good and join them to their source. "For the place on which you did stand is holy ground." That is, in truth you are standing on holy ground and on a holy level. And your prayer is holy. And the alien thoughts that come to you during prayer are: "I am the God of your father (avikha)," in the sense of "desire," as in "And you desire (ve-avita) glory." That is, because of the Divine aspect in the desires and thoughts that visit you, that is, the holy sparks that fell from their source and yearn to be repaired and raised to their source, and thus they push themselves into your prayer and service. This involves various aspects. There is "the God of Avraham," that is, thoughts that come from the source of lovingkindness, the trait of Avraham and the aspect of the Divine in him that yearns for its source. And there is "the God of Yitzchak," that is, thoughts from the aspect of might (gevura), i.e., fear, the aspect of Yitzchak, which must be raised to the source of Supreme fear. "The God of Ya'akov," that is, from the trait of glory (tiferet) come [the seeking of] glory and greatness. This is all to raise them to their source, and not to remove them, God forbid, from prayer. Understand this. (Degel Machane Ephraim, Shemot, Vayera)

 

            As we stated above, the author of the Degel Machane Ephraim views the incident of the burning bush as a model for all situations of drawing near to God, and especially for the most important situation, i.e., prayer.

 

            The burning fire symbolizes the excitement of the person standing in prayer, engaged in an intensive spiritual experience, which is accompanied by a yearning upwards, as in the manner of fire.

 

            The thorny bush, in contrast, symbolizes vexing and troubling alien thoughts, which entangle a person and prevent him from climbing upwards and elevating himself.

 

The idea of an "alien thought" classifies a thought that comes to a person as not belonging to the spiritual state and place in which he is now found. This idea assumes that not everything that a person thinks is authentic to his present state. There are states in which a thought rises from the depths of a person's soul, trying to penetrate his consciousness and control it. Its alien nature is evident in the fact that the person does not wish to allow it to surface at that time, and in the fact that it disturbs him and prevents him from devoting himself to a particular mental state that he is striving to reach.

 

The common situation in which alien thoughts appear is prayer.[1] A person wishes with all his being to devote himself to prayer, to direct his thoughts toward it, to experience it, and then all a sudden he is visited by an alien thought, which cuts off his line of thinking, cools his excitement and distracts him from his communion with God.

 

R. Ephraim tries to understand the phenomenon through an analysis of what Moshe says in reaction to the appearance of alien thoughts: "He greatly wondered how any alien thought could come close to him and interrupt him from his service, for all the kelipot and all the alien thoughts must necessarily be burnt and consumed by his holy breath, his excitement and his great communion with God, blessed be He."

 

This bewilderment gives expression to a lack of understanding. A person seeks God with all his being, he engages in prayer, he stirs himself to excitement and communes with God, and then all of a sudden he is visited by some alien thought. At this point he is doubly astonished.

 

First of all, how can this happen?

 

When a fire burns, cries Moshe, it consumes everything in its path. How then, at the height of his excitement, can a thorny bush suddenly appear that is not consumed by the fire?

 

In the wake of this question, there sometimes arises another concern. Perhaps the fire is an alien fire! Perhaps the excitement is imaginary? For why does it not overcome everything; why does it allow an alien thought to penetrate into its midst?

 

Alternatively, there are those who level an accusation: Why does God place an obstacle in our path, precisely when we yearn to conjoin with Him? Why does he make it so difficult for us precisely when we seek His closeness?

 

Raising the sparks

 

            R. Ephraim tries to provide answers to these questions: "Because of the Divine aspect in the desires and thoughts that come to you, that is, the holy sparks that fell from their source and yearn to be repaired and raised to their source, and thus they push themselves into your prayer and service."

 

            With these words, R. Ephraim tries to blunt the idea of strangeness from these thoughts.

 

As stated above, we have identified three basic characteristics of alien thoughts: they appear against one's will, they tend to take control, and they interfere with some spiritual process.

 

R. Ephraim wishes to remove the last two characteristics from an alien thought, and thus the first characteristic is removed as well. R. Ephraim's underlying assumption, which we will discuss at greater length below, is the assertion that every alien thought conceals within it some Divine spark. That spark is what pushes the thought into a person's consciousness while he is headed on a journey to the mountain of God. That spark's objective, according to R. Ephraim, is not to take control, but to be redeemed. The thought wishes to climb up onto the wagon, join the holy, and be elevated together with the person. It beseeches the person, Do not go up and leave the entire world that surrounds you behind.

 

R. Ephraim turns the tables upside down. While the appearance of an alien thought at the height of excitement had inclined us to doubt the sincerity of that excitement, R. Ephraim dismisses that doubt: "For the place on which you did stand is holy ground," says R. Ephraim. Don't think that because you have been visited with an alien thought you are not standing on holy ground. Just the opposite is true! The appearance of the alien thought confirms the truth of the experience and the excitement. Even more than this, it confirms the truth of the alien thought itself.

 

This may be likened to a child who was sent out of the classroom, but continues to disturb. He bangs on the door, peers through the window, and climbs up onto the roof. Our first inclination is to see the child's actions as a disturbance, as a disruption of the learning process taking place inside the classroom. If we consider the matter on a deeper level, argues R. Efrayim, we understand that had the child wished to cut himself off totally from the lesson, he would not have continued to disturb. It is precisely his constant reappearance at the window over the course of the lesson that teaches us that a spark remains within him, yearning to come back and rejoin the class. He does not want to cut himself off. He does not want to be left behind. And more than this. His disturbance is meant to reinforce the teacher's confidence in the success of his teaching. Were the lesson irrelevant and unimportant, the student would not disturb and try to return and reconnect with it.

 

An alien thought teaches that indeed we are dealing here with a process of drawing close to God, and the appearance of that thought precisely at the time of that growing nearness teaches us about its desire to take part in the prayer.

 

The question arises: How can we include an alien thought in our prayer? How can we turn it from a disturbance into something uplifting? R. Efrayim answers: By "raising the thought to its source."

 

The assumption that underlies this argument is that every thought in the world, even the most disgraceful, has a pure heavenly source, which, as it evolves downwards, becomes corrupted and sometimes even becomes clothed in negative garb. Lust is rooted in lovingkindness and the desire to give and pour forth.[2] Dread is rooted in the fear of God, and pride stems from the quality of glory.[3]

 

We are talking about an entirely different way of looking at the world. From now on, we do not judge what stands before us according to its result and according to its manifest garment, but rather according to what is driving it. What drives a person to be haughty? What drives him to be a coward? To be filled with lust? And so on. The underlying assumption is that the driving force is an elevated spiritual source which also drives all the positive elements in the world.[4]

 

Chassidut teaches us that this way of looking at any phenomenon raises it to its source, and thus redeems the Divine spark hidden within it. Thus we find in the name of R. Dov Baer, the maggid of Mezhirech, disciple of the Besht:

 

If love enters his mind, he can stand in the world of love, and similarly regarding the other traits of the seven days of building. And if he is wise… Even though the love that enters his mind at this time belongs to this world, he can remove this materiality and join himself to the source of supreme love among the traits of the Creator.

 

An application of this principle is also brought in his name:

 

If you suddenly behold a beautiful woman, you should consider the following: From where does this beauty come? Surely, were she to die, she would no longer enjoy this beauty; rather she would reach ultimate ugliness. From where then does she get it? You must say that it comes from a Divine force that spreads within her; this gives her the ruddiness and facial beauty. Thus, it turns out that the source of beauty is a Divine force. Why then should I be drawn after the part? It is better that I join myself to the source and root of all the worlds where all the beauty is found.

 

            Beauty, then, is a physical expression of a spiritual source. From the moment that we attach ourselves to the spiritual source, we cancel the physical value of the matter as it appears before us.

 

            We can now say that, according to R. Ephraim, an alien thought does not disturb the process of communion, but rather it broadens its limits. Not only does the soul commune with the Divine, but also the base and corporeal. When a person views things in the proper way, he can raise, redeem and join them to his communion and excitement.

 

The bush, so it would appear from the words of R. Ephraim, is indeed eventually consumed - not by the external fire that surrounds it, but by the burning spark hidden within it, which alone can burn and raise it. No external fire, strong and true as it may be, can sweep it away with excitement. An alien thought does not disappear until it collapses into itself, into the Divine spark concealed within it.

 

And moshe drew near to the Fog

 

            Against the background of what has been stated thus far, let us now examine the view of R. Nachman of Breslov, who also speaks of the hindrances and obstacles that block a person precisely when he tries to draw near to God. Despite the superficial similarity, it seems that he proposes a different explanation of the appearance of such obstacles and the manner of dealing with them:

 

"And the people stood far off, and Moshe drew near to the fog where God was" (Shemot 20:18). For one who walks in materiality all his life, and then fills with excitement, and wishes to walk in the paths of God, blessed be He - the attribute of justice denounces him and does not allow him to walk in the paths of God, blessed be He, and arranges for some hindrance. But God, blessed be he, desires lovingkindness, and so He conceals Himself, as it were, in that hindrance (see below). A person with da'at (knowledge) beholds the hindrance, and sees the Creator, blessed be He. As it is stated in the Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 1:1): "If someone should say to you: 'Where is your God?," say to him: 'In a great city in Edom.' As it is stated: 'He calls to me from Se'ir.'" A person without da'at, when he sees the hindrance, immediately turns back. A hindrance is the aspect of cloud and fog, for cloud and fog are darkness, darkness (choshekh) bearing the sense of hindrance, as it is stated (Bereishit 22:16): "And you did not withhold (chasakhta)." This is the meaning of the verse, ""And the people stood far off," for when they saw the fog, namely the hindrance, as stated above, they stood far off. But Moshe, who is the aspect of the da'at of all of Israel, drew near to the fog where God was, namely to the hindrance, where God, blessed be He, was concealed… " One who has da'at can find God, blessed be He, in the hindrances themselves, for in truth there are no hindrances whatsoever in the world, for God, blessed be he, is concealed within the hindrances themselves, and it is through the hindrances that we can draw near to God, blessed be he, for there He is concealed. This is "And Moshe drew near to the fog," i.e., the hindrance, "where God was." (Likutei Moharan Kama 115) 

 

            Once again Moshe represents drawing near to God, this time in another context. What stands in the background is not the incident involving the burning bush, but the revelation at Sinai. Once again we are dealing with a process of drawing near to God, and once again we find concealment and distancing.

 

R. Nachman is relating here to a person who all his life had followed the path of materiality, and then all of a sudden fills with excitement and wishes to follow in the path of God. It is precisely at that moment that a fog forms and some hindrance appears that threatens and puts him at a distance. One again the question arises: Why now?

 

R. Nachman, as opposed to R. Ephraim, proposes a different solution, incorporating the attribute of judgment into the picture. R. Nachman seems to view alien thoughts and hindrances as a sort of Divine truth that wishes to remind a person where he comes from. Just a minute ago he had been immersed in the forty nine gates of ritual impurity, and then suddenly he wishes to climb up on high?! Remember where you come from, and what you are fit for! – says the quality of judgment, clothing itself in an alien thought.

 

According to R. Nachman, an alien thought does not reflect the condition of material reality, as stated by R. Ephraim, but rather the condition of man. It does not come to be redeemed, but rather to cast man down and return him to the place he came from – materiality.

 

But alongside the attribute of justice, asserts R. Nachman, appears the attribute of lovingkindness and the attribute of God's love for Israel. The Divine spark concealed in an alien thought, according to R. Nachman, is not being held captive, nor does it result from hiding and concealment, as it would appear from the words of R. Ephraim. Just the opposite is true! According to R. Nachman, the Divine spark concealed in an alien thought is the fruit of Divine love and kindness, which bring God to rest within it, in order to allow man, despite the attribute of truth and despite his base position, to encounter God.

 

R. Nachman would presumably say: "The place on which you did stand is NOT holy ground," but nevertheless "I shall come to you and bless you."

 

R. Nachman's picture is the very opposite of that of R. Ephraim:

 

According to R. Ephraim, the Divine spark that is found in an alien thought results from fall and distancing, and the penetration of the alien thought into a person's prayer results from his drawing near to God and conjoining with Him.

 

According to R. Nachman, the appearance of an alien thought in a person's prayer results from his distance and fall, and the existence of a Divine spark in its midst is the fruit of God's drawing close and love.

 

According to R. Ephraim, the existence of the Divine spark is trivial; what is astonishing is the appearance of the alien thought.

 

According to R. Nachman, the appearance of the alien thought is trivial; the striking element is the Divine spark.

 

The cry

 

            We have seen that, according to R. Ephraim, the Divine spark concealed in an alien thought may be redeemed through contemplation, uncovering its point of vitality, and elevating it to its source.

 

            R. Nachman's language is very different. At the heart of the matter, beyond all the differences that we have seen thus far, R. Nachman speaks not about the "spark" that is found within the alien thought and the hindrance, but about God: "Where God was."

 

            From this it follows that the manner of dealing with the issue is entirely different. R. Nachman does not deal with raising the sparks, but with an unmediated encounter: "It is through the hindrances that we can draw near to God, blessed be he, for there He is concealed."

 

            R. Nachman does not spell out in this teaching how man can meet the Divine by way of alien thoughts and hindrances. But what is left unexplained here is elaborated upon in another place, where he writes as follows:

 

Know, that each individual has hindrances in accordance with his strength, in accordance with what he can bear and stand, if he desires. And in truth, there is no hindrance, for the hindrance itself clothes God, as has been explained elsewhere (Likutei Moharan Kama 115). The greatest hindrance of all is that of the mind, namely that a person's mind and heart differ with God, blessed be He, or with the tzadik. For even when he breaks the hindrances that stand in his way of traveling to the true tzadik and he arrives there, nevertheless, when his mind differs and he has objections to the tzadik, and he has crookedness in his heart against the tzadik, this hindrance blocks him more than all the hindrances. Similarly regarding prayer, at first a person may have a number of hindrances regarding prayer, and afterwards when he passes over them and comes to pray, if his heart is crooked and perverse with God, blessed be He, this is the greatest hindrance of all, as stated above. This is the aspect of "My heart palpitates [secharchar]" (Tehilim 38:11). The Aramaic translation of saviv ("around") is sechor sechor, namely, his heart is surrounded and encompassed by crookedness and objections and heresies against God, blessed be He. This is the aspect of "And they made their lives bitter with hard work" (Shemot 1:14). And we find in the Tikkunim (tikkun 13, 28a): "with an objection," namely with objections in his heart, which constitute the greatest hindrance of all. Then he must cry out to his father in Heaven with a great voice from the depths of his heart, and then God, blessed be he, hears his voice and turns to his cry. And it can happen, that this alone will cause all the aforementioned objections and hindrances to fall and be cancelled. In any event, God, blessed be he, hears his voice, which is his salvation. The letters constituting the word kushya ("objection") are the initial letters of the words, "Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice" (Tehilim 27:7). A person must merely cry out to God, when he is overcome by objections and heresy." (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 46)

 

            R. Nachman does not relate here to the cause of the hindrance, as he did in teaching no. 115, but rather to its results and to the manner of dealing with it.

 

            R. Nachman speaks of a cry as the key to dealing with hindrances. The truly novel idea, however, is that the cry itself is already a response, as he says in a surprising, and perhaps even smiling, manner: Kushya = "Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice." The very question, according to R. Nachman, is already an answer, and the very cry is already a response.

 

            R. Nachman teaches us how an alien thought can turn into a meeting ground between man and God. In contrast to the understanding of R. Ephraim, this is not accomplished through contemplation of the alien thought, for as opposed to R. Ephraim, R. Nachman attaches no value to the content of the alien thought, but rather to its appearance.

 

            An alien thought, according to R. Nachman, teaches man about his place and reminds him of his immanent distance. This experience must bring a person to crying out in pain to God. Moshe's bewilderment, according to R. Ephraim, is almost rational, and it brings him to substantive contemplation of his thought, whereas according to R. Nachman, it brings him to a calamitous cry yearning for closeness. According to R. Nachman, the alien thought does not end up burning in the fire, as depicted by R. Ephraim, but rather it becomes the fire itself.

 

            Let us imagine a person engaged in enthusiastic prayer, who is suddenly interrupted by an alien thought. Pain and broken-heartedness spread throughout his body. Despair and wretchedness overcome him, and his entire being shatters into pieces. At this moment, all of these forces, the pain, the broken-heartedness, the despair, and the wretchedness, all drain into a single place, all turn into ever-growing energy, pushing the person with intensity that he had never previously experienced to cry out to God, "Why?" "What do you want from me?" "Why do I deserve this?" At this moment, R. Nachman teaches us, man is met.

 

            At this elevated moment, entirely shrouded with modesty and humility to the point of ruin, a person covers himself with the Divine light that is bursting forth in the greatness of His love from the cracks in the hindrances and alien thoughts, and caressing the person with love and tenderness: "I am here," "I will not leave you," "I will not allow the alien thought to erect a barrier between you and me."

 

            At this time, it is not the alien thought that is redeemed, but rather the person. It is not the spark that is rescued from its captivity, but rather the person.

 

            Attention should be paid to the fact that even R. Ephraim speaks of God's love as He reveals Himself to Moshe, and as He appears to Him by way of an alien thought. But this revelation comes by way of the hidden spark, which in the course of contemplation the person succeeds in connecting to God. God, according to R. Ephraim, allows man to elevate the alien thought upwards to supreme communion.

 

            This is not the case with R. Nachman. God's love brings the Divine to descend into the very midst of the hindrance and wait there for the person to reveal it through his cry. In R. Nachman's world, there are no alien thoughts or hindrances. Everything is part of the game of hide-and-seek that God plays with man, and from the time that God turns to God with the question, "Where are You," all the barriers, all the walls, all the alienation falls. R. Nachman concludes the aforementioned teaching as follows:

 

And similarly it is related in the name of the Ba'al Shem Tov: This may be likened to a king who set down a great treasure in a certain place and created an illusion of several walls around the treasure. When people came to these walls, they appeared to them as real walls that are difficult to break. Some went back right away, some broke down one wall and came to the second and couldn't break it, some broke down more but couldn't break down the rest, until the son of the king came and said: "I know that all the walls are merely illusions, and really there is no wall at all." And he proceeded safely until he passed them all.

 

            With the help of God, we should so merit!

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] It should be noted that an alien thought can make its appearance in many different situations, while conversing with another person, at a moment of love, during learning, and any other situation demanding dedication.

 

[2] See: "And if a man shall take his sister, his father's daughter, or his mother's daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness, it is a disgraceful deed (chesed)" (Vayikra 20:17).

 

[3] And similarly "All the other attributes are branches of fear and love and their ramifications, as was explained elsewhere" (Tanya 3).

 

[4] See the Gemara in Yoma 69b which describes how the removal of forbidden sexual desire from the world also nullified procreation, and how yetzer (evil inclination) is related to yetzira (creation).

 

(Translated by David Strauss)