The Inaugural Vision
The inaugural vision in which Moses was appointed to become the leader of the Jewish Nation and its eternal teacher, we should assume, contains within it the essence of Judaism.
Moses, shepherding his father-in-law's sheep in the Sinai wilderness, suddenly sees a blazing thornbush. "G-d's angel appeared to Moses in a blaze of fire from amid a thorny-bush," we read in Shemos. "He saw and behold! The bush was burning in the fire but was not consumed. Moses said to himself, 'I must go over there and gaze at this great sight—why isn't the bush burning up from the flames'". When Moses approaches the scene, G-d reveals Himself to him, saying: “Don’t approach here. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy soil.” He then speaks to Moses, identifying Himself as the G-d of your fathers,” and charging him with the mission of leading the Jewish people to redemption.
It is a perplexing story. Firstly, what was the symbolism behind the vision of a burning bush? G-d has made numerous appearances in the Torah till this point. Yet never was it in a burning bush not being consumed.
Second, why did G-d tell Moses not to approach the bush? What would be wrong with him coming closer?
Third, what does G-d mean when He says, “The place upon which you stand is holy soil?” Why was the actual earth upon which he was standing holy? The burning bush was holy, for G-d was present in the flame, thus Moses was standing in a holy place. But why the emphasis on the actual sand and earth?
Interpretations abound. Today I will present a profoundly moving insight on the matter.
The Thorns in the Fire
Since this revelation was the genesis of Moses's appointment as the leader of Israel who would transmit the Torah to Israel, this vision captures one of the common dilemmas in the life of the Jew and indeed of every searching human being.
One of the great challenges of any sincere person striving to grow spiritually is that even when he or she manages to ignite a fire in their soul, the fire never consumes the thorns present in the psyche. The passion is aglow, the heart is aflame, the ecstasy is ablaze, but the thorns refuse to be sublimated in the flame. Toxicity and anxiety take over. A person may be in the midst of sincere prayer to G-d, but suddenly a most ugly thought or craving will flare up in his brain. You may be experiencing a most happy moment in life, but suddenly the most obnoxious emotion surfaces in your heart. Even in our most potent fires, the thorns abound. Even in our most intimate, subtle, refined, joyous, spiritual experiences, we confront irrational fears, demons, and traumas. They often surface to the conscious in the most least expected moments.
The story of the burning bush which would not consume the thorns embodies the duality in every heart. On one hand, we experience a desire to be good and moral. But then, at other times, we are mundane and careless, overtaken by beastly tendencies, selfish impulses, and ugly emotions. What is worse, these polarities are often experienced in such close proximities with each other. In the morning, I may be infused with a sense of awe, wonder, splendor, amazement. At those times, I am inspired, motivated to serve G-d, to pray, to learn Torah, to engage in mitzvos, good and holy deeds. Barely several hours—sometimes minutes—pass, and boom! The sublime ecstasy withers away. This spiritual person suddenly has a hard time refusing a slice of pizza, a particular website, or a terrible angry impulse.
When my heart is idealistic, I say to myself, “I really love this. It’s great. Life is beautiful. I wouldn’t give this up for anything in the world.” And then, it’s all gone. The whole spiritual high is naught. I am reduced to a small, petty, ridiculous, fearful, depressed, and angry creature.
This dichotomy is one of the main factors causing people to give up on living a meaningful and joyous life. The tension is too deep, and I can’t be a hypocrite.
Moses, the first and greatest Jewish teacher, approaches the thorn bush. He has one question: “Why does it not get consumed?” If the fire is real, why does it not consume the thorns?! How is it possible, Moses wonders, that if a person’s spirituality is authentic, it has no bearings on his or her thorns? Unless of course, the fire was a delusion.
G-d responds: “Remove your shoes from your feet because the place upon which you stand is sacred soil.” These words revolutionize our approach to the enduring struggle. Holiness lies in the very place upon which you stand. Don’t wait till you reach your own psychological utopia; rather, the very place where you stand is holy; a relationship with G-d does not mean that you are darkness-free, thorn-free, struggle-free. You must encounter the holiness in your present situation.
Then G-d continues to tell him: “I am the G-d of your father.” I am present in the midst of this thorny bush. I am in this flame, even though the thorns have not been eliminated.
It took another three millennia for the message to be articulated lucidly. This notion, one that has brought comfort and healing to millions of soul-climbers, is one of the central themes of the Tanya—the magnum opus of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), whose passing 208 years ago, in 1812, will be marked today on the 24th of Teves.
The theme is captured in the very name of the book.
The Alter Rebbe termed this work with a very original and beautiful name: Sefer shel Banunim, which means The Book of the Intermediate People, or the Guidebook for the Ordinary Person.
Who is the banuni? Who is this prototype the Alter Rebbe places in the vortex of his great work? The banuni is a person who possesses in a conscious way a duality—not like the tzadik, who has achieved moral perfection. The banuni operates on two levels of consciousness, his life dichotomized between two souls: The “reptilian brain,” an insecure and self-centered consciousness, focusing on survival and fast comfort, and a Divine, transcendental soul, aligned with the infinite depth and purpose of existence. His life constitutes a struggle between these two perceptions of the self and the world.
Here is the Tanya’s profound idea—all based on that vision of the burning bush: “Remove your shoes from your feet because the place upon which you stand is sacred soil.” Never doubt the potency and authenticity of your inner holiness and Divinity, just because there are ugly thoughts still lingering in your brain. Never allow your external animal self to dictate and take control of the narrative of your life. The toxic voices are here to help you crystallize who you really are; each of them coming to make you grow and become the human being you are capable of becoming.
G-d does not want you necessarily to become the tzaddik, the toxic-free person. Not everyone can attain the spiritual perfection of the tzadik. But not everyone must achieve that state. The hero of the Tanya is the banuni: he opens up a door for every human being in every situation and on every level, to find his or her own place among those who are striving to soar on high—to connect and become true servants of G-d.
The banuni is not the individual who always wins, but he is also not the human being who is defeated. He is the individual who fights daily to uncover the truth of his own infinite depth; the clamor of his efforts is exquisite music to the Divine ear.
The Alter Rebbe termed his work the Sefer shel Banunim because he was attempting to address who we are rather than who we are not. He was attempting to make Judaism, to make the Divine path, real; to make it intimately close (“karov elecha”)—to you, to me, to us, people for whom the world seems no less real than G-d, maybe even more real. To human beings to whom materialism is as powerful as spirituality, maybe even more powerful.
Many previous books of Jewish ethics and spirituality aim to elevate and inspire man toward the ideal of the tzaddik, 'the perfectly righteous individual.' But there is a problem. Some people indeed can become truly righteous, the rest of us give up, or we become fake. Hence, the value and contribution of the Tanya. With it, the Alter Rebbe brought healing and hope to millions.
I would say that the entire Tanya is based on that single passage G-d told Moses: “for the place upon which you stand is holy.” Wherever you are, you can find holiness and develop a real relationship with the Almighty. Even as your thorns do not disappear and do not forfeit their sting in the flame of your soul, never doubt the truth of your core-identity, as a Divine ambassador in this world. Serving G-d does not mean becoming sacred; it means having the courage to fight for truth even amidst thorny foes that crave to undermine you.
Moses wants to approach the fire. We all want to transcend our conditions and become Divine. So G-d says, no! You must realize that holiness is where you stand today! You may have lots of earth and gravel—but that itself is holy. You were given the mission to light a candle of truth and hope in a space of darkness and hopelessness. Your inner darkness is waiting to be transformed. To be a Jew means to know that just as in math we have the Asymptote, a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance, we may feel that we never reach the full truth. Yet, wherever you are in life, you can become a conduit for the infinite and bring heaven down to earth.
 Based on Degel Machane Ephraim Parshas Shemos. This Chassidic work was authored by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim, the Rabbi of Sedlikov, Ukraine (1748-1800). His mother was Udel, the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov. He is interred near his grandfather in Medzhebuzh, Ukraine. It is also interesting to note that the Alter Rebbe said, that the path of the Baal Shem Tov was based on this inaugural vision of Moses, cf. this essay: https://www.theyeshiva.net/jewish/6126/essay-shemos-souls-on-fire