Beit Midrash Shetach- Parshat Shemot:
"הסנה בער באש והסנה איננו אוכל" (שמות ג':ב)
“The ‘sneh’ was aflame but the ‘sneh’ wasn’t consumed”
Parshanut of The Land on the weekly Parsha
By tour guide and Jewish educator Gedaliah Goldstein
While the ‘sneh’ is only mentioned as a plant in Tanach regarding this event, chaza”l refer to it a number of times in their various writings in the Talmud and midrashim. These sources mention characteristics of the plant helping us to identify it, and along the way, uncover some of the symbolism behind the story portrayed here.
The plant referred to is a low plant. Midrashim equate this with Israel’s low spiritual level in Egypt- prompting Hashem to appear to Moshe to take us out. Meaning, the physical character trait of the plants lowliness which is used to call Moshe to take the nation out of Egypt, symbolizes the spiritual status of the nation.
From Egypt, Israel will go on to receive the Torah and then continue on to Eretz Yisrael where we can most fully keep the Torah. Moshe as a shepherd probably frequented the relatively rare water sources as he tended to the flocks of Yitro. As such it shouldn’t surprise us that this plant he meets while tending the sheep is a plant that often grows specifically by water sources. Thus, chaza”l teach us in shemot rabbah: “just as the sneh grows by water, so too Israel can only grow through Torah which is compared to water.” Again, this isn’t simply a parallel between a general point having to do with the nation of Israel who always needs Torah and this plant needing water. This plant is growing in the desert despite being a water plant,and therefore is not like an ordinary plant needing water. All plants need water. This plant is mortally and entirely dependent on this very place and any of its surroundings outside this precise location would finish it off instantly. This is the nation of Israel that desperately had to be taken from Egypt towards receiving and living the Torah.
Along with sources in chaza”l mentioning the sneh as having rose like flowers and mulberry type fruit, there is
one more attribute which may help us to identify our “burning bush” and its symbolism.
Going down to Egypt was easy! There was food down there, in Canaan- none! Yosef was there to help make the transition as easy as possible and ensure the land was open before them. All their needs would be met. The only problem was when it came time to leave! This is brought in midrash rabbah- “just as by the sneh a person can stick his hand in without feeling [pain], but when he removes it will be scratched, so too Israel went down to Egypt without anyone stopping them but when they came out it had to be through wonders, miracles and war.”
The plant known as the Petel Kadosh in Hebrew or Holy Bramble in English seems to be Chazal’s identification of the sneh. It is a short plant, that grows near water, with nice kind of rose like flowers and raspberry fruit growing on it (which are kind of similar to mulberries in appearance). In addition, they have thorns that unlike most thorny plants face inwards towards the center of the plant. Meaning, that a person wouldn’t have a problem placing his hand into the bush, but only upon trying to retrieve it would he get caught.
The various attributes of the sneh resemble the difficulties that the nation of Israel were facing in slavery at the moment that Moshe was called upon by Hashem. Moshe was told that the time had come for Israel to leave Egypt, receive the Torah and be brought to the land of Israel (where petel kadosh can be seen growing by the river beds and other sweet water sources). The sneh is on fire but can never truly be consumed! Unlike the mulberry, raspberry or any other plant, the fire we experience actually gives us the impetus to raise our eyes skywards and ultimately assists in setting us free on the path towards serving Hashem!