Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

Moses’ Story

Unlike his brethren suffering in slavery, Moses had been raised in the palace of the Pharaoh, and by the king’s own daughter, Batya. A favorite of the king, as a child, he was not spared luxury. Moses could have easily chosen to isolate himself in the aristocratic life of a prince, oblivious to the hardship and suffering of the Hebrews, targeted for abuse and annihilation. But Moses did not.

Moses leaves the palace, choosing to spend his time comforting and bringing relief to the Jewish slaves. Quickly, he finds himself unable to stand idly in the face of injustice. To protect an innocent man being beaten senselessly by his Egyptian taskmaster, Moses kills the tormenting master, and then, to escape capital punishment, flees to the quiet land of Midyan. There, he meets his wife, Tziporah, the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential men in town, Jethro, and Moses settles down into the favorite biblical occupation, shepherding.

It seems that life has worked out for Moses. The horrors of Egypt are a thing of the past. True, Egypt is a place of unspeakable crimes against humanity, but what can Moses, or for that matter what can anyone, do about that? Moses’ life in Midyan, hundreds of miles away from Egypt, is now secure, domesticated, and peaceful. He builds a family and grows old.

Moses is now eighty years of age. By all calculations, a good time to retire.

But then everything changes. And it has something to do with a burning bush.

A Burning Bush

One day, Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, when suddenly, he witnesses a bush, “burning with a heart of fire,” yet the bush is not being consumed, it is not being transformed to ash. Moses says, “Let me turn aside, and see this great vision! Why is the bush not being consumed?”

The Torah describes the following scene:[1]

“G-d saw that Moses turned to see, so He called out to him from amidst the bush. ‘Moses! Moses!’ And he said: Here I am.”

G-d tells Moses that "I have heard the pain and screams of the children of Israel in Egypt, and I have decided to save them." Now it is you, Moses, who I will send to Pharaoh, and you will take my nation out of Egypt. Moses becomes the greatest leader of all times, liberating a people from oppression and giving the world the Torah, paving a road in the jungle of history.

A Turn of the Head

The Rabbis in the Midrash, always sensitive to nuance, focus our attention on the enigmatic words: “G-d saw that Moses turned to see, so He called out to him from amidst the bush.” Clearly, G-d called out to Moses only because Moses turned to see the sight of the burning bush. But what exactly did Moses do? What does it mean that he “turned to see?”

On this there is a Midrashic argument:[2] Rabbi Yochanan says that Moses walked five steps[3] approaching the burning bush. Reish Lakish says that Moses did not take any steps at all; he simply turned his head to gaze at the bush, and when G-d saw that he turned his head in that direction, he called out to him.

What is the motif behind this strange argument?

The Light Bulb Moment

All biblical tales are not merely historical tales of the past, but contemporary lessons for our own lives. The story of Moses, the most important biblical figure, is no different.[4] It is a timeless blueprint for our own inner journey.

Just like Moses, whose life at this point was slow and tranquil, far away from Pharaoh and the enslaved Israelites, and then suddenly is confronted with his burning bush and a new mission to change the destiny of mankind, we too often find ourselves far away from our destiny. We are living in our own orbit, “shepherding our own flock,” minding our own business, in our inner psychological wilderness.

But then, suddenly, we experience a “burning bush,” or a “light bulb moment.” A fire is ignited in our hearts, a light bulb goes off in our minds. Our G-d within speaks to us about a larger mission in life.

Mark Twain said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." It is the day when you suddenly see your full potential and hence your full responsibility to both yourself and those around you. It is a moment of clarity when you know exactly what you are capable of, and what you were created for. It is when you shoulder full responsibility for your destiny.

But how can I know that the voice calling me is real? How do I know that it is not a fantasy created by an imagined ego, a childish dream, divorced from reality? How do I know that this is not the hallucination of a lunatic, or trauma protecting itself, but my personal call to greatness? Maybe I need to go to a psychiatrist or a therapist instead of returning to Egypt and confronting my Pharaoh.

The answer is when the fire burns and burns, yet never consumes your bush. The light bulb never dims. The voice inside me never falls silent. Then I know that this is not a fantasy, but a mission. My inner fire and secret passion, my ‘heart of fire,’ can never be extinguished, can never be placated by any alternatives. I can run, but I cannot hide, because the fire will continue to burn inside me.

Running From Your Burning Bush

And yet, many of us do not turn to see as the bush burns with a never-ending flame. We don’t want to get disturbed. We have appointments to catch, emails to answer, bills to pay, goals to complete. Who has time and energy for a bush which refuses to stop burning?

We are tempted to look away, run away, to pretend we never saw what we saw. We don’t like entertaining ideas that might severely shake up the status quo.

The greatness of Moses was that he turned to see the bush. According to one sage, Rabbi Yochanan, he actually walked five steps toward the flames—corresponding to the five layers of human consciousness: Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah, Yechidah—the biological, emotional, intellectual, transcendental, and undefined quintessence (“quint” in Greek means five[5]) of the soul, beyond form or description. According to Rabbi Yochanan, Moses approached the burning bush with every fiber of his being, with every aspect of his identity.[6]

But Reish Lakish argues. Moses did not even take a single step. There is no need to even take one step toward the bush. All G-d wants is for you to turn your head and notice the bush ablaze. Just be attentive enough in life that when the light bulb moment occurs, you will at least notice it; you will not repress it with a glass of alcohol, a TV show or a rib steak.

That is for some the most difficult and therefore most rewarding step: to turn their heads and see the moment.[7] And when you do turn your head, when you do tune in to the moment, you will be able to hear the call. Your inner Divine consciousness, your inner soul, will summon you: Moses! Moses! Declare “Hinani!” I am here. And listen, with your soul’s ear, to your mission, the mission of your life.

Three Excuses

But Moses is not easy to convince. He begins arguing with G-d[8]: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? Who am I that I should take the Jews out of Egypt?” And when G-d does not desist, Moses tries a different approach: “But the people, they won’t believe me; they will ask me ‘who is this G-d in whose name you speak!’” But G-d insists. Moses then speaks of the fact that he is not a man of words; his communication skills are compromised. Finally, Moses begs, “Please G-d, send in the hand of the right person.” G-d gets upset at Moses and promises him that He will be with him throughout the mission. Only then does Moses finally accept his calling. Once he accepted it, he never looks back again. The march toward redemption begins.

This is true in our lives too. There are three major handicaps that prevent people from finding themselves and living their lives to the fullest; there are three rationalizations for why we shirk our greatest responsibilities; three forms of paralysis.

Moses first says “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? Who am I that I should redeem the Jews?” In our vocabulary this is the response of insecurity. We are afraid, we feel inadequate to meet the challenges of life. We blame ourselves or our mothers: I am helpless, I am incompetent, I am a victim, I stutter, I can’t communicate, nobody likes me, I am a small guy, a nobody. But G-d does not accept: To shy from responsibility due to feelings of inadequacy is not an act of humility, but one of cowardice, because it excuses inaction, avoids accountability, and most importantly it allows you to remain mediocre and for a people to remain enslaved. How can you allow your mediocrity to allow suffering of innocent people?

Another approach is not to blame ourselves, but to blame everyone else. In the words of Moses, “But the people won’t believe me! They will say who is this G-d in whose name you speak; what will I respond to them?” We often claim that we are ready, but what can we do, the world is not ready for us! We blame our spouses, our in-laws, our family, our community, the media, the government, the masses—for being unresponsive. We blame our families for being unappreciative and our communities for not respecting us. We blame everyone but ourselves.

Finally, there is a third excuse: Perfectionism. If I can’t be perfect, then I don’t want to be anything at all. This is encapsulated by Moses’ last argument: “G-d! Send in the hand of the right person.” Moses, says the Midrash,[9] was referring to Moshiach, the one intended to redeem us conclusively, permanently, and for all of eternity. Here Moses is saying, “I know that I am capable of fulfilling this mission to the fullest, and I know that the people will be responsive and will heed my call, but if my redemption is to be temporary, then I don’t want to bother with it at all! It is either all or nothing!”

But G-d, once again, disagrees. Perfectionism, when misused, is not a strength, but a weakness. It is the enemy of progress.

Your Struggles

How do I know where my unique mission lies?

The answer, again, is in the thorn bush. The call to Moses did not come from any bush; it came from a thorn bush. Thorns represent pain, where I was pricked, where I was hurt, where I have been left scarred. Many times it is specifically that area where I have been hurt deeply but have persevered, where I struggle the most, where the inner battle rages most intense, that can become my unique strength and contribution. My ‘heart of fire’ rages within and grows out of my own inner thorn bushes.

You, and only you, are equipped with your unique mission to open hearts, to move people to action, to keep people from losing hope, to help people forgive themselves and others, to help people laugh at their humanity, to save a soul, kindle a heart, to inspire a nation, to touch a community, to spread goodness and kindness, to share the light of Torah and Mitzvos with people around you, to reveal the energy of redemption in your part of the world.

Can we see the burning bush? Will we turn around? That is the question I must answer in my life; and you must answer in yours.[10]


[1] Exodus 3:4.

[2] Midrash Rabah Shemos 2:6.

[3] In Midrash Tanchuma here the version is “three steps,” not five steps. The midrashic commentators discuss this discrepancy, suggesting various explanations. Cf. footnote #6.

[4] The Chassidic masters teach that there is a spark of Moses in each of us (Tanya chapter 42.) Hence, all of Moses’ experiences apply on some level to us.

[5] Quintessence means the fifth essence. The ancient Greeks taught that there were four elements, or forms, in which matter could exist: fire, air, water, and earth. Then there was the fifth element known as the fifth essence (quintessence) ether, more subtle and pure than fire. Now the word stands for the essential principle or the most subtle extract, the pure, undiluted essence of an existence that can be obtained. These five dimensions are discussed in many works of Midrash and Kabbalah.

[6] This also explains why according to one version in Midrash, Moses took three steps, since in many sources, the five levels of the souls are generally divided into the three levels of “naran,” Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah.

[7] This is similar to the idea the Lubavitcher Rebbe once expressed about prayer. Prayer is a ladder of many rungs. There are many different levels and layers we explore during prayer. But the foundation of all of them is “shtelen zeich davenen,” the person tearing himself away from everything and tuning-in to the mental state of communicating with the Divine. That in a way is deeper than all of the high levels following during the actual prayer (Likkutei Sichos vol. 2 Parshas Matos Massei.)

[8] Exodus 3:11.

[9] Midrash Lekach Tov. Pirkei Derabi Eliezer ch. 40.

[10] My thanks to Rabbi Avraham David Shlomo (Cape Town, South Africa) for his help in preparing this essay.