Many different approaches have been suggested to explain the symbolic significance of the burning thorn bush where God relayed His first prophecy to Moshe. The fact that the bush was ablaze but was not consumed had the effect of catching Moshe’s attention, but many writers searched for the possible deeper meaning and significance of this image.
The Keli Yakar creatively suggests that the thorn bush serves as an unflattering symbol of Benei Yisrael. As indicated by the story of the two quarreling slaves whom Moshe confronted, Benei Yisrael were beset by internal strife during the period of bondage. They lived as a “thorn bush,” with the people “pricking” and causing harm to one another. God thus showed Moshe a raging fire that was incapable of consuming a dry, flammable thorn bush, to draw his attention to the painful absurdity of his nation’s condition. We would expect that the “fire” to which the people were subjected, the pain, humiliation and torment of slavery, would have the effect of “consuming” the “thorns,” of bringing them together so they could help and support each other. Alas, the “thorns” were not consumed. The envy and enmity among Benei Yisrael remained intact, even amid the “fire” of persecution and suffering.
It is worth noting that God, as the Torah describes, appeared to Moshe “mi-tokh ha-sneh” – from within the thorn bush. He came to lead them to freedom even within the “thorns,” despite the people’s unworthiness. The image of the burning bush was shown to Moshe not to cause him despair, but to show him the challenges that needed to be overcome for the redemption to unfold. God was ready to redeem the people even in their current condition, provided that they worked to eliminate the “thorns” of strife and hostility.
One of the “signs” which God gives to Moshe with which he would prove his prophetic status to the people was that his hand would become leprous, and would then be healed. Rav David Moskowitz, in his Gelilei Zahav, suggests that Moshe’s leprous hand hearkens back to his encounter with the two quarreling slaves many years earlier. Rashi (2:14), citing the Midrash, comments that when Moshe realized that his fellow Israelites spread the news about his killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he concluded that this was the reason for the nation’s suffering – because they shared secret information about one another. Upon seeing the unfortunate state of friction and disunity among the people, Moshe determined that this must be to blame for their persecution. Tzara’at is traditionally seen as the punishment for lashon ha-ra – negative speech about people – and thus Moshe’s leprous hand might perhaps reflect this scourge of tale-bearing that plagued Benei Yisrael at the time. By making Moshe’s hand leprous and then immediately healing it, God wanted to show Moshe that this ill could be cured. As quarrelsome and difficult as the people were at the time, they could still be changed. This reassurance was vital for Moshe as he accepted the mantle of leadership and set out to prepare and lead the people to freedom.
We must never despair when the “thorns” never seem to be “consumed,” when we see moral and spiritual ills continue to plague our nation with no end in sight. In God’s very first prophecy to Moshe, He showed him that every one of these ills can be cured, that change is possible. Rarely, if ever, does the change occur as swiftly as Moshe’s leprous hand was healed, but we must firmly believe that it is possible and within our reach, that ultimately, the “thorns” of selfishness, jealousy and hostility will be eliminated, and we will again become the worthy heirs of God’s covenant to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.