By Rabbi Mordechai Weiss
The first reference to Mount Sinai in the Torah, appears when our teacher Moses witnessed there a strange phenomenon. As he was shepherding his sheep he glanced up at the mountain and saw a thorn bush that was burning, but was not being consumed by the fire.
Our sages grapple with the meaning of this first encounter. Rashi states that the fire was a sign that G-d would be with the Jewish people even in hard times when they were slaves in Egypt. As an extension from the above, when a person grieves, G-d grieves as well. When the Jewish people are being oppressed in bondage Almighty G-d is with them.
A second interpretation relies upon an obscure Midrash that states that this burning bush was a rose bush. The significance of this reference is that though the Jewish people might be as difficult as thorns, there are nevertheless “roses” among them, and for them alone it is worthwhile to save them from their tyranny.
As an outgrowth of this interpretation one might further posit that, though within every Jew there are many “thorns,” there are, nevertheless, “roses” as well. Our charge is to always search for the good – the “roses” – in each and every Jew. Rabbi Solivetchik states that in every Jew there is a “Ratzon Elyon” — a sublime desire to do what is correct. When we look at people we must always search for the virtuous aspects that are in their character. Though there are Jews who demonstrate bad qualities, there is also within them the potential of doing noble acts. Our job is to seek out and to bring to fruition that potential.
There is a third interpretation – the view of Rabenu Bachya – that states that the burning bush represents the Torah. The Torah was given to the Jewish people to give warmth and support; to illuminate our lives and to provide us with the necessary tools to meet the challenges that we face daily; to offer comfort in difficult times.
However just as the bush was not being consumed so also the Torah should never be used as a vehicle of destruction. No one has the right to use the Torah as an excuse to denigrate anyone-Jew or non-Jew. No one has the right to say that because he learns Torah he is by definition better than someone else! Only G-d has the right to judge anyone! Some of the most incompetent people who led the Jewish people in times of need were still referred to as leaders by our sages. The Talmud tells us: “Yiftach B’doro k’shmuel b’doro” -Yiftach, who was perhaps not the best representative of Jewish leadership in his generation, was equivalent to the great prophet Samuel (Shmuel).
We do not understand the ways of Almighty G-d, nor can we use the Torah as a means to laud ourselves and to step on other people because of their seemingly lack of religious observance. No one has the right to use the Torah as an excuse to degrade another person. This is symbolized by the burning bush not being consumed by the fire.
These lessons demand the attention of our teachers when they are actively involved in the instruction of Torah to our children. Rabbis who must berate others in the name of Torah, to show their superiority, do a disservice to our people. No teacher has the right to criticize anyone – Jew or non-Jew – and use derogatory language, all in the name of Torah. Too often teachers are quick to use insulting language to describe Jews who are less observant, or non-Jews in any situation. We don’t use Torah as an excuse to step on people and belittle them.
Secondly, teachers must have the ability and the desire to always look for the “rose” in every child. There is always good in everyone and certainly in all our Jewish children.
Teaching is a serious responsibility. We have in our hands the power to destroy or to build.
As Chaim Ginat so beautifully wrote: “As a teacher, I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, a child humanized or dehumanized”.
May these principles gleaned from the burning bush guide us in our daily interactions with people and be inculcated into the hearts and minds of our teachers as they embark on the serious task of educating the next generation of children.
Rabbi Mordechai Weiss is the principal of the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford. Comments may be e-mailed to him at Ravmordechai@aol.com