The second chapter of Shemot ends with a promise; the enslaved Israelites cry out to God for help and liberation, and: ‘God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them’ (Shemot 2:24-5).
And scene change — we cut back to Moses, tending his father-in-law’s flock in the wilderness, when: ‘A messenger of the Eternal appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. And he gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed’ (Shemot 3:2).
You may have noticed a semantic field of seeing start to emerge: the root ר-א-ה is used when Moses first notices the bush (3:2), when he comments on his need or desire to look at it and, indeed, in the nominal form to describe what he sees as a ‘vision’ (3:3). It is then, ‘When God saw that he had turned aside to look’ (3:4, another two uses of the root!) that God calls out directly to Moses, and he answers.
I keep coming back to this image, this motif of the burning bush. The part which most interests me, though, is the second part of the phrase: that the bush burns unconsumed. Most of the traditional commentators I have come across are focused on the bush itself (rather than a tree) or the amount that it burnt (not in the slightest, according to Rashbam). Chizkuni, a mid-13th century commentator, picks up a verse of Shemot Rabbah, which reads Egypt as the fire and Israel as the bush, suggesting in summary that ‘so, too, Israel would not be consumed despite Egyptian oppression’ (translation from The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus, p. 16).
We can invoke this imagery with another framework: we speak of the fiery passion that motivates and drives us, and of burnout — the state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion which leaves you without any fuel to carry on. Burnout, while often heralded as a millennial zeitgeist, was coined as a term by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the early 1970s, though it is often presented as having been around since time immemorial. Or, at least, since the Bible; one can cite Yitro and Moses’ conversation about leadership in Shemot 18, or Moses’ declaration that ‘I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me’ (Bemidar 11:14). Many people argue about the meaninglessness of the term – notably American historian Jill Lepore in a 2021 edition of The New Yorker – but it holds significant meaning for vast swathes of the population, and has done for decades, in regards to professional work, parenting, and religious life. It is the intersection of the three, as a parent soon to be engaged in a professionalised religious role, which particularly interests me.
It is the combination of emotional exhaustion, which leads to depersonalisation, and a decreased sense of accomplishment that causes burnout, according to Freudenberger’s proposition. While he envisioned this as a workplace phenomenon, I understand how it has been taken up more widely, and in application to religious life in general. We teach that our religious duty is to make the world a better place, however that may look in different traditions. This can easily create an environment in which we care ‘too’ much without feeling like anything we do makes a difference, if we even know what we could do. The fire which drives us, inspired by our texts, traditions and teachers, will consume us if we are not able to keep it going through other means, such as the recognition of small acts of success which give us further fuel – another example of ‘being seen’.
The bush which burns unconsumed is, for me, the aspirational balance between caring too much and not being able to care (or act) at all. What does it mean that Shemot frames this motif with the language of sight?
We are all desperate to be seen, meaning to be noticed and understood – such is the human condition. We also need to see, otherwise how can we know what to care passionately about, where to direct our energy? Neither of these though can happen through sight alone; what about listening? It is never enough just to be seen, as there’s a power imbalance; it relies on our perception of the other, rather than how they choose to own their experiences and tell their story. To actually understand, or to be understood, requires taking an active role in communicating your own and hearing the other’s needs and wishes.
Before God sees the Israelites, God hears them. Listening is the hallmark of great leadership, as any community organiser could tell you. And what does God do, when faced with the hardships of the people? God follows what Saul Alinsky articulates as the ‘Iron Rule’: never doing for others what they can do for themselves. God trains Moses up as a leader, and they both soon learn that he cannot carry the task alone. God listens to Moses’ fears, and appoints Aaron to work alongside him — they are who free the Israelites, not an omnipotent God acting alone.
Burnout isn’t an individual failing stemming from a lack of resilience; it is indicative of a societal problem which needs a collaborative solution. Perhaps we can take the metaphor of the burning bush and Moses’ call to action, as a nudge from God as to how we build sustainable models of leadership and communities, with a vision for the future and a plan to get there which isn’t all consuming.
Daisy Bogod LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.