Shabbat Shalom! Birshut Maran De’Atra, Rabbi Perton, I’d like to dedicate the following words of Torah to the memory of the Rabbi’s father, the late David Perton ז”ל. May his neshama have an alyiah!
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I’ve always been fascinated by man’s conversations with G-d. From the famous איך (“aieka”) — “where are you?” that G-d addressed to the first humans after they sinned in the Garden of Eden, to Cain’s fearful plea at life after he himself took the life of his brother. From Isaac’s silent tears at the Akeidah, to Jacob’s prayers in the middle of the night, as he was fleeing his brother who had sworn to kill him.
In all those conversations, I felt their fear, their trepidation, their emotion. You cannot read those verses, especially in Hebrew, and not feel something, a link between the hero of the narrative and yourself, the reader. I must confess that I wondered if I would ever find the same courage those characters showed, to approach G-d in such a direct and straightforward way. I can even say I felt envious for what they accomplished in those moments, in those conversations with G-d: salvation, answered prayers, closeness and connection.
But if I were to rank all such dialogues between humans and G-d in order of the sheer power they transpire, three candidates really stand out.
The third place from the top is taken — in my opinion — by a verse with which I struggled deeply, because it embodies what the commentators have called “holy chutzpah”, the audacity to come before G-d not just with a plea and a prayer, but also with a challenge. I am talking here about Avraham’s plea for Sodom, where he basically calls G-d to task with words that, personally, I would think twice before uttering even to my closest friend:
חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵֽעֲשׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּֽרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט – It would be a sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous person together with the wicked, as if the righteousness is like the wicked. It would be a sacrilege to You! The Judge of the entire earth will not do justice? — Genesis 18:25
You are G-d and I am a mere mortal, “dust and ashes” says Avraham, but when it comes to saving people, to saving human lives, I will challenge You until You relent. Powerful indeed!
Just above this in the top ten sharpest remarks, a fragment from this week’s parsha, in the aftermath of one of the most problematic episodes in recorded Jewish history. Right after the Revelation at Sinai, with G-d’s voice still ringing in the ears of the people, the Jews revert to their old idolatrous ways and worship the Golden Calf. It is a moment of deep drama. Moses is on the mountain and hears the news from G-d Himself: “Go down, because your people, the people you brought out of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” (Exodus 32:7). Moses descends, smashes the Tablets at the foot of the mountain, supervises the punishment of the perpetrators, and then goes back up to talk to G-d again.
G-d’s offer is simple: the Jews are to be destroyed, a new Jewish nation will start with Moses, and the story is to restart. For Moses though, this proposition is simply unacceptable. And here is where the series of sharp remarks that Moses addresses to G-d come into play.
Let not Your anger, G-d, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. […] Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self. — Exodus 32:11-13
Sounds familiar? This is similar to Avraham’s plea for Sodom. What will the world think of You? What kind of G-d do you want to appear as? A vengeful G-d? A compassionate G-d? Besides, You made an oath to their ancestors to protect them…
But the line that really strikes first place on my list is the one in chapter 33, verse 18: וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ — “Moses said to G-d: Show me Your glory!”
Picture yourself: You know the sin had been extremely serious. You know the punishment is death. You are pleading to G-d to show some mercy… and now you ask him to “Show His glory” ? What is the world was Moses thinking at that time? He should have been content just to avert the destruction, right? Surely, you can intercede for another favor later on, when G-d was more inclined to fulfill it, once He had a chance to see some good behaviour from the people, instead of betrayal and idolatry…
And yet, this is precisely the moment Moses chooses to ask G-d to reveal Himself. And paradoxically, he even gets his wish in the form of a glimpse at “G-d’s back” (whatever that means) passing him as he stayed hidden in the cave. He gets the promise that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) will be built, a structure whose main purpose was — many commentators point out — to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.
So let’s try to understand what Moses was really doing here and why he chose to do it now.
The what is simple: closeness to G-d — this is what he wants to achieve. But how he goes about doing this is unique: he does it by flipping every one of G-d’s angry remarks on its head, producing a counterweight that simply cannot be refuted.
Take for example the following verses, in which Moses tells G-d of an apparent “flaw” in His plan:
You said to me: “Bring up this people”, but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet You have said, “I know you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.” Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me Your ways, so that I may know You and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is Your people.” [G-d] said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And [Moses] said to him, “If Your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” — Exodus 33:12-15
Did you notice the contrast?
G-d told Moses: “your people have corrupted themselves”.
Moses replies: “It’s Your people, too.”
G-d told Moses: “really, they corrupted themselves”.
Moses replies: “It’s because You denied them closeness, that’s why they went astray.”
G-d told Moses: “My presence will go with you.”
Moses replies: “You’d better! If you don’t, then don’t carry us up from here.” Or basically: “Go with us, or else!”
What is fascinating to note is that Moses here does not reinvent the wheel. What he does is not an all-in bet in the dark. On the contrary, he uses techniques that have been proven to work in the past.
The line “It’s Your people, too” is Abraham 2.0. Just as Avraham reminded G-d that the people of Sodom were His creation, no matter how wicked, and thus deserved a second chance, so to is Moses reminding G-d that the Jews are His people.
The line “You contributed to their sin by not being close enough” is Adam 2.0. In Sefer Bereshit, when asked by G-d why he ate from the tree, Adam doesn’t just blame the woman; he blames G-d Himself: “The woman You gave me to be with me, she gave me from the tree and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12)
And the line “Go with us or else” is Yetziat Mitzrayim / Exodus 2.0. In the Passover Haggadah we say: לא על ידי מלך ולא על ידי סרף ולא על ידי שליח — “not through an angel, and not through a Seraph, and not through a messenger” — that’s how G-d took us out of Egypt. We don’t care for intermediaries. We need G-d, He is the only Entity that makes the journey worthwhile.
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Three replies, three successful examples from the past.
But since I also mentioned at the beginning of this drasha the pleas of Cain, Isaac and Jacob on the list of powerful encounters between humans to G-d, I cannot stop myself from making some connections with those as well.
In Cain’s plea, the main idea was that Cain did not fully know what killing was. It was, after all, the first murder in history. He also did not know how repentance worked. He asks G-d in Genesis 4:11: “Is my sin really too heavy to bear?” Similarly here, Moses asks G-d to clarify the notions of sin, repentance and forgiveness. He says in our parsha: ”For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16) Or otherwise said: there must be something that can mitigate the punishment, a special relationship, a special circumstance, a special ultimate reason. If we, the Jewish people, are special in the eyes of G-d, then surely He can find a way to understand a momentary slip-up, no matter how monumentally huge it was.
Jacob’s plea, in Genesis 28:20-21, takes place in a moment of darkness and fear. Similarly here, in Moses’s plea, darkness and fear is floating in the air. Also, in in Genesis, a couple of strange psukim stand out almost immediately: “If G-d will be with me and He will guard me on my way, if He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and He will return me in peace to my father’s house, then G-d will be my L-rd.” The verses are so strange, particularly in the use of the initial“if” that Ramban notes that Jacob was really doubting himself and his ability to sustain a level of engagement with G-d, not doubting G-d. Regardless though, this type of conditional is present in our parsha as well: “If Your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” G-d is almost blackmailed to accept, to engage, to acquiesce. He must take the first step, promise that He Himself will lead the Jews further. If not, Moses paints the alternative picture as a total failure, particularly since Moses wants no part in a failure & restart scenario. As Rabbi Perton reminded us last week, Moses simply concludes – by use of another conditional: “If You don’t forgive them, then simply erase me from Your book!” (Exodus 32:32)
And finally, Isaac’s silent dialogue with G-d at the Akeidah — the other episode I mentioned — is apparent here in every line of Moses’ plea. Not so much in what is said, but in what is not said, in all the whitespace in the text, in all the lines not spoken. For example, there is no dialogue while the second set of Tablets are being fashioned. Just work, silent work, with the understanding that this is how durable relationships are fashioned. At the Akeidah, the covenantal deal is sealed when Isaac silently agrees to become an olah, an elevation offering, when Avraham teaches faith and Isaac learns it in silence. In our parsha, the covenant is renewed with Moses’ silent work on the second set of Tablets, which come to replace the ones broken by the people’s sin. Here too, G-d teaches and Moses learns. All in perfect silence.
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We now know what Moses did in that fateful encounter in our parsha: He learned from all the successful interventions of the past, and created a perfect plea, one able to overturn even the decree for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Why did he do it now? Because that is what true leaders do when an opportunity presents itself: they seize it. At the beginning of the episode, G-d turns to Moses and says: “Hanicha li” — “Let Me be and I will destroy them.” Aha, so You asked me to “let You be”? That is exactly what I won’t do, because I care for them, no matter how corrupt they have now become. They are Your people, my people, the Jewish people, offspring of people who were loyal to You, and You should never forget that. You’ve made a promise, You are responsible for them, and I will never let You back down from Your responsibilities.
This is what Moses creates in his dialogue with G-d: a model for all future encounters, daring, sharp and powerful. A model for a relationship that is unique in the world: a relationship where the creations revere the Creator, but cannot remain content at just staring at Him in awe from afar. They need closeness, they need to learn with Him, to experience Him, to seek His essence, to discover Him. They need to feel loved, to feel listened to, to feel forgiven when they sin and brought back when they go astray.
In one of his essays from the series “Covenant and Conversation”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was writing:
That is one of the striking differences between the synagogues and the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. In a cathedral you sense the vastness of God and the smallness of humankind. But in the Altneushul in Prague or the synagogues of the Ari and R. Joseph Karo in Tzefat, you sense the closeness of G-d and the potential greatness of humankind. […] Between the lines of Exodus 33, if we listen attentively enough, we sense the emergence of one of the most distinctive and paradoxical features of Jewish spirituality. No religion has ever held God higher, but none has ever felt Him closer. That is what Moses sought and achieved in Exodus 33 in his most daring conversation with God. — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
This is the Judaism defined and refined throughout the ages, as a close relationship between G-d and us. This is our inheritance, created in the dialogues of our past, with power to shape still the dialogues of our present and future.
So, when we come in front of G-d, whether in shul, at home or elsewhere, let us remember the inheritance that Moses left us. He simply told G-d הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ — “Show me Your glory”, and in doing so, he left us an echo of that encounter for all time. He showed us that it’s possible to dare and to aim high, and he challenged us also to constantly strive to be a true “kavod Hashem”, an honour for G-d Himself.
Rabbi Sorin Rosen
— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, March 3, 2018