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The first reference to Mount Sinai in the Torah occurs when our teacher Moses witnessed a strange phenomenon there. As he was shepherding his sheep he glanced up at the mountain and saw a thorn bush that was burning without being consumed by the fire.
Our sages grapple with the meaning of this first encounter. Rashi states that the fire was a sign that God would be with the Jewish people even in hard times, i.e., when they were slaves in Egypt.
As an extension of the above, when a person grieves, God grieves as well. When the Jewish people are being oppressed in bondage, the God of Israel is with them.
A second interpretation relies on an obscure midrash which states that the burning bush was a rose bush. The significance of this reference is that while the Jewish people may be as difficult as thorns, there nevertheless are “roses” among them, and for the roses alone it is worth God’s while to save the nation from tyranny.
As an outgrowth of this interpretation one might further posit that though within every Jew there are many “thorns,” there are “roses” as well. Our charge is to always search for the good – the “roses” – in each and every Jew. Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, stated 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 in their character. Yes, there are Jews who demonstrate bad qualities, but there is also within them the potential for 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 provide warmth and support – to illuminate our lives and to provide us with the necessary tools to meet the challenges we face daily, as well as to offer comfort in difficult times.
But just as the bush was not consumed, so 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 God has the right to judge his creation.
Some of the most incompetent people who led the Jewish people in times of need were referred to as leaders by our sages. The Talmud tells us, “Yiftach b’doro k’Shmuel b’doro.” Yiftach, perhaps not the best representative of Jewish leadership in his generation, was equivalent to the great prophet Samuel.
We do not understand the ways of Almighty God, nor can we use the Torah as a means to laud ourselves and to step on other people because of their seeming 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 teachers who 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 are doing a disservice to our people. No teacher has the right to criticize and use derogatory language 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. They use phrases such as goyishe kop or call Reform or Conservative Jews reshaim, wicked people, using the Torah as their basis. A teacher who resorts to this type of name-calling is in the wrong profession. We don’t use Torah as an excuse to step on people and belittle them.
Teachers must have the ability and the desire to always look for the “rose” in every child. There is good in everyone – certainly in all our Jewish children.
Teaching is a serious responsibility. We have in our hands the power to destroy or to build. As the late Haim Ginott 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.
The principals gleaned from the burning bush must guide us in our daily interactions with others and be inculcated in the hearts and minds of our teachers as they go about the serious – and sacred – task of educating our next generation of children.
About the Author: Rabbi Mordechai Weiss has been involved in Jewish education for the past forty-six years, serving as principal of various Hebrew day schools. He has received awards for his innovative programs and was chosen to receive the coveted Outstanding Principal award from the National Association of Private Schools. He now resides in Israel and is available for speaking engagements. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-368-5149.
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