Seeing The Ten Commandments In The Burning Bush
Was The Burning Bush A Template For The Commandments?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Parshat Yitro, we read about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. But there’s something very unique about the text in this section – it’s strikingly similar to an earlier story, namely, Moses and the Burning Bush. Is there a parallel that’s meant to be drawn between the stories of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the Burning Bush?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he re-examines both texts and learns how the Burning Bush may actually serve as a template for the Ten Commandments. Through this comparison, we start to see a deeper spiritual meaning behind the story of the burning bush.
In this week's parsha, we have the Ten Commandments. Now we have talked about the Ten Commandments before in Aleph Beta, we actually have a whole course on it. I want to give you a little bit of a different perspective on this document here. I think that there's actually another text that sheds light on the Ten Commandments in a wondrous and fascinating kind of way.
I want to argue that it is the text of the burning bush; the discussion that God has with Moses at the burning bush becomes a fascinating kind of template for the Ten Commandments themselves. In order to see it, we just have to play one of our favorite games 'Where have we heard all of these before?
Parallels Between the Burning Bush and Ten Commandments in the Bible
Let's start with the journey to the burning bush itself with Moses shepherding the sheep of his father in law.
Vayinhag et-hatzon achar hamidbar, 'leading the sheep, through the desert.'
Vayavo el-har ha'Elokim Chorevah, 'until they come to a mountain of God, a place called Chorev.'
Now we talked about this a little bit in our first Hanukkah course, you can look there for a more expensive explanation of it, but it's kind of interesting that over here, we speak of it as a mountain of God, at Chorev, and the reader doesn't know anything special about Chorev.
If you follow the five books of Moses, you later understand that Chorev is actually Sinai, and thus you understand why it is a mountain of God, but at this point you don't really understand that.
It seems like the Torah is leaping forward and connecting us to events that will again happen at Chorev. And if you think about this whole introductory verse, those events really do happen again. When else is Moses leading sheep that belong to father, through a desert until they get to Chorev?
Well, that's at Sinai, the flock, the people of Israel, their ‘Father In Heaven’s' people, and once again, Moses is leading them through the desert, until they get to the same mountain.
Digging Deeper into the Story of the Burning Bush
What does Moses see at the mountain? He sees something that is on fire but does not burn, is not consumed. When else does Moses see something on fire that is not consumed? It happens at Sinai. God descends in fire upon the mountain, once again, this time, the whole mountain is burning, but the mountain isn't consumed.
Keep on reading in the burning bush story, God says, al-tikrav halom, 'Don't get too close, stay back, it is a holy place.' Later on, at Sinai, the whole mountain is holy, and people are told to stay back, not to touch.
Now, we are going to get to words that sound very similar to those in the Ten Commandments themselves. Anochi Elokei avicha, 'I am,' – now just stop right there. When else does God introduce himself that way with the Hebrew word, anochi? The first of the Ten Commandments where the very first word is, anochi, 'I am.'
But now, notice the contrast. At the burning bush, anochi Elokei avicha, he introduces himself not as your God but as the God of your forefathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the Ten Commandments, anochi Hashem Elokeicha, 'I am the Lord, your God.'
When does He become your God? When He is taking you out of Egypt. Anochi Hashem Elokeicha, asher hotseticha me'eretz Mitzrayim, 'I am your God, I took you out of Egypt.' I rescued you when you were down.
At the burning bush, immediately after God says, anochi, 'I am' the God of your fathers, he says, vayomer Hashem ra'oh ra'iti et-oni ami asher beMitzrayim, 'I have seen the suffering of My people in Egypt,' I have heard their screams. Yadati et-mach'ovav, 'I understand their pain.'
Ve'atah, and now, lecha ve'eshlachacha el-Paroh, 'Go, I will send you to Pharaoh,' vehotze et-ami venei Yisrael mi-Mitzrayim, 'and take out my nation, Israel from Egypt.'
Put the first words of God's declaration at Sinai, together with the last words of that declaration, and you get the first of the Ten Commandments. Anochi Hashem Elokeicha, 'I am the Lord, your God,' asher hotseticha me'eretz Mitzrayim, 'who now has taken you out of the land of Egypt.'
'Back at the burning bush, I saw your pain and committed myself to take you out. Back then I could not claim that I was your God, I hadn't done anything for you. I made promises to your forefathers but that was it. I was the God of your forefathers. Now, I have taken you out. Now, I am your God because I have done what I said I would do. I saw your pain and I responded. I took you out of Egypt.'
And now, let's go on to the second exchange between God and Moses at the burning bush.
Deepening the Spiritual Meaning of the Burning Bush and Ten Commandments
Moses says to God, 'Who am I, how can I even go to Pharaoh, I feel completely not up to this.' If you listen carefully to the Hebrew of Moses' declaration, mi anochi? 'Who am I?' It plays off of God's introduction, anochi, 'I am.'
It is almost as if Moses is saying to God, God, if you are anochi, you are the Master of the universe who has this great relationship with our forefathers. Mi anochi? 'Who am I?' I am a nothing, how can I make this happen? To which God responds, ki eheyeh imach, 'because I am going to be with you,' that's how you are going to do it. I will be with you every step of the way.
Now turn to the Ten Commandments, what does ki eheyeh imach become in the Ten Commandments? It becomes lo yihiyeh elecha, 'there shall not be for you other gods.' Do not have allegiance to other gods, only to the one God.
What's the rationale to be fiercely loyal to the one God and not introduce an allegiance to any other? Because God was there for you when you were down, God was there for the entire people when they were down at their lowest of the low in Egypt; and he was even there for one person, when Moses was down and said, mi anochi, 'I am a nothing.' God said you are never a nothing, I am with you, and you are a something. You don't turn your back on a God like that.
Let's go to the third exchange of the burning bush. Moses says to God, 'I don't know what your name is, they are going to ask me, what's your name.' Mah omar alehem, 'What should I tell them?' Vayomer Elokim el-Moshe, God says, eheyeh asher eheyeh, 'Tell them that I will be that which I will be.'
Rashi, quoting the Midrash we talked about this in an earlier Parsha video, explains that to mean, I will always be with you in your time of trouble, I was with you during this time of trouble and in all future times of trouble – ultimate empathy from the Master of the universe.
Look at Commandment number three, lo tisa et shem Hashem Elokeicha lashav, 'do not take God's name in vain.' If God's name is His empathy for you, don't take that name lightly.
If we think about what it actually means to take God's name in vain, it actually doesn't mean you shouldn't swear falsely in God's name. That's actually a different commandment. The way the Talmud understands it, it means that you should not swear unnecessarily using God's name. So, for example, you shouldn't swear that a chair is a chair using God's name because it is trivial. God's name signifies ultimate empathy, ultimate care. That's really ultimate attention.
The gift of attention that God gives to you is the gift of being there for us and if you think about using God's name in vain, trivially, to swear that a chair is a chair, something that doesn't matter, it's the ultimate inattention, it's the ultimate casting aside, dismissiveness.
Imagine your wife writes you a card and the card is lovingly crafted, hand written. It speaks of love, of empathy and she is there. Imagine getting that card and dismissively, like yeah, thanks for the card, smile, on to the next thing.
To treat that kind of loving attention with dismissive attention is just the worst thing you can do in that relationship. Don't do that to God. God's name is empathy, don't take that name in vain, don't be trivial with that.
More Allusion Hiding in the Burning Bush Story
Next exchange of the burning bush, Moses says, they won't believe me that I represent you, that God, in fact, appeared to me. God says, yes, they will. I am going to give you signs. The signs show something about you, that you are a true representative of me, and they show something about me, that I am the Master of all things.
A staff is an inanimate object. Suddenly it is full of life, it is a snake. A hand is full of life but suddenly it is white, as if it were dead. Blood is one source of life, water is another source of life, but if you take those who live in water and substitute blood, they all die, right? One source of life, turning into another source of life, ends up with death for everybody. Who does all of these? The Master of life and death.
The exact same things that the signs showed, back at the burning bush, are the two things that the signs of Shabbat show. The signs say something about the people who keep it, and it also says something about God. The first time it is described, ki ot hi beini ubeinecha ledorotechem, it's a sign between me and you, ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadeshchem, to show that you, the Israelite people, you represent me, because I chose you to keep the Sabbath but then, just a few verses later, it also describes a sign.
Beini uvein benei Yisrael ot hi le'olam ki sheshet yamim asah Hashem et-hashamayim ve'et-ha'aretz, it's a sign that says something about Me, that I am the Master, I am the Creator, I created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, I rested. It says about God that He is the Master of the universe, that's the point of the Sabbath, but it also says something about us, about the people of Israel; that we were chosen to keep the Sabbath, and there's something special about that.
And finally, the fifth exchange at the burning bush. Moses to God, lo ish devarim anochi, 'I am not a man of words,' gam mitmol gam mishilshom, 'not yesterday, not the day before,' in the past, I was never a man of words. Ki chevad-peh uchevad lashon anochi, 'my mouth, my tongue, they are heavy.' They are inarticulate. Chaf-bet-dalet, chaf-bet-dalet, twice.
In the fifth commandment, you have chaf-bet-dalet twice. Chabed et-avicha v'et-imecha, the same letters now mean honor, honor your father and your mother.
What was God's response to Moshe at the burning bush? You think that there's something wrong with your mouth? Mi sam peh la'adam, 'who do you think created mouths?' I made your mouth and I gave you this mission. You have what it takes to do the mission.
And now, go to the Ten Commandments, why would someone dishonor their parents? It's because they think that their Creator didn't give them what it takes. Why should I thank you for the life that you gave me if the tools you gave me are not up to snuff; but God says, you must honor your parents.
What you got in this world, the hand of cards that was dealt to you by your creators, you earthly creators, your parents? Your heavenly creator, God? That's the hand you need to fulfill your mission in life. You got what you need. Now stand up and do the mission.
The Significance of the Burning Bush: The Ten Commandments Template
At Sinai, we received ten commands from our Creator. At the sneh, at the burning bush, Moses received five responses in a conversation with the Almighty.
Those five responses become the template for the Ten Commands, the basis of our laws as people. Sneh, bush, serves as a foundation for Sinai, the mountain where we received the Torah upon.
Isn't it interesting to look at how close those two words are in Hebrew? As a matter of fact, they are spelled exactly the same way, the only difference is, the final letters, is it a hey or a yud? Hey has a numerical value of five. Yud has a numerical value of ten. Five really do become ten as you go from the bush to the mountain.
You know, this idea that five becomes ten, may not just apply to the amount of utterances that took place in Sinai at the amount of dibrot, of commands, that were written upon luchot, the Ten Commandments. It might also suggest a kind of expansion of the experience itself.
You are doubling in terms of numbers, but you are also sort of doubling in terms of the magnitude of the experience. Think about a bush and a mountain – a bush is much smaller than a mountain. The event that's taking place at the bush is smaller than the event that's taking place at the mountain.
One event involves one person, and the other event involves the entire people. And you get a hint of this, actually, from a strange verse, in the story of the burning bush itself. God says to Moses, vezeh-lecha ha'ot ki anochi shlachticha, 'Let me show you a sign of that I have, in fact, sent you.' Behotzi'acha et-ha'am mi-Mitzrayim, 'when you take Israel out of Egypt,' ta'avdun et-ha'Elokim al hahar hazeh, you are going to serve God upon this very mountain.
Now if you stop and think about it, what kind of sign is this? I mean, if I was going to give you a sign that you can show that I’ve spoken to you, I need to show you something right now. This is a sign that won't happen until the future. But maybe the sign means something else.
Understanding the Spiritual Meaning of the Burning Bush
Maybe God is saying, when you finish your mission, when you finish taking Israel out of Egypt, the culmination of that is going to happen right here. It's actually going to be a replay of the events that happened here.
Look at you right now, Moses. You showed up at this mountain, a shepherd of sheep. You walked through the desert to get here. There will be another time that you will walk through the desert to get here. Another time that you will be shepherding sheep. Yes, now you are taking care of father in law's sheep, but soon, you are going to be taking care of Father in Heaven's sheep.
The events that take place on this mountain are going to be the culmination of the mission that starts right now. Right now, you are looking at one little bush that's on fire. Pretty soon, the entire mountain is going to be on fire. It's all going to happen again, only the scale will be larger.
Right now, you and I are talking one on one, we are having a conversation, we are saying five things to each other. When your mission is finally over, it's going to be a conversation between me and the entire Jewish people.
Your personal conversation with me, Moses, now, is going to be the template for that national conversation; for the laws that are going to become the bases for how they live.
Your experience here will really become the clay out of which the foundation of their laws are molded.