Rabbi Joe Blair’s ‘Drash’/Sermon to Emmanuel Episcopal Church
Staunton VA March 2, 2014/Adar 1 30, 5774
[This drash was delivered to the Congregation by Rabbi Joe as part of a "pulpit exchange" with Rev. Shelby Owen at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton.]
Shalom! Good morning to you!
Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.
Rev. Owen – Shelby – my thanks to you for agreeing to our ‘pulpit exchange’. I hope that both our communities find it a rich concept and worth repeating in future. I am approaching this ‘drash’ from an informal perspective; if that is not suited to your community, please accept my apologies in advance. I also am limiting my remarks to the Hebrew Scripture reading from Exodus in the lectionary for today. I know I won’t do it justice, and I can’t imagine having enough time to do more!
The scripture reading for today includes a section from Exodus chapter 24 verses 12-18.
I have taken the liberty of asking Sarah Grove-Humphries, your organist, and our Cantorial Soloist, to chant the reading from Exodus in the Traditional Trope so you can hear what it sounds like. [Sarah Chants here]
In this very brief reading we see that Moses is being called up onto Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the ten sayings (sometimes called the 10 commandments), the teachings of the Torah – the five books of Moses, also called the ‘torah’ or ‘instruction’ – and the ‘Mitzvot’ or commandments by which we are to live a good and godly life, in order to teach all of them to the Hebrews. Moses rises, and tells the 70 elders to stay where they are, and that should anyone present a question or conflict that needed resolution, Aaron and Chur would be there to handle them. Spoiler alert – this doesn’t work out all that well – we will be hearing about the failure and episode of the golden calf shortly!
Then, we read, Moses goes up, and the cloud of the glory of G-d covers Mount Sinai, and remains there for six days. On the seventh day, G-d called to Moses from inside the cloud, and Moses entered, and met with G-d. At that point the sight of the glory of G-d appeared to the people as a consuming fire on top of the mountain; and we read that Moses remained atop the mountain for forty days and nights.
Let’s just picture this from the viewpoint of the people. They are camped around the foot of the mountain, and Moses has told them not to set foot on the mountain or to touch it, lest they die. The elders have ascended partway with Moses and are still on the mountain – perhaps visible, at least from time to time, but perhaps not. And Moses, who has led them here, has ascended the mountain, and entered the cloud where G-d is found – and then the cloud of the glory of G-d turns into a devouring fire!
“No way,” they think, “could Moses survive that! G-d has become angry and killed Moses. Moses is no more.” And it is in that mindset that they turn on Aaron and demand that he do something! Make something that we can pray to that will make G-d less angry! So the golden calf comes about…. In that light, it is easier for us to imagine the motivations and the concerns that drove the people.
But that is not what I want to talk to you about today.
Instead, I want to do a bit of a close reading, to focus on the details to see what they may reveal for us.
Going back to the beginning, we know that Moses was reluctant to take on this role. “Not me, G-d. Pick someone else, G-d. They won’t believe me. I am slow of speech, and heavy of tongue.” Moses, known as the most humble of men, argued with G-d! He must have felt pretty strongly that he didn’t want to do this. But here, Moses utters not a word. G-d calls, and Moses goes. This time is different for some reason.
Is it because Moses has seen what G-d can and will do? Is it because G-d already told Moses that any objection raised would be met? Or is it because Moses has grown to accept that what G-d instructs will occur? Has Moses come to a realization of the power of G-d? Does he grow and learn to have faith in G-d? All of these questions, and more, come to mind here.
And now I share with you a very important aspect of life as a Jew. We have lots of questions, but we don’t necessarily have answers. We are called to ask questions, to search and to seek, but often we are left to live with ambivalence, uncertainty, and unclarity. There are many things to which there are no answers provided, and even a few where the ‘answer’ is simply that this is too hard to answer, so we will leave it until Elijah comes to announce the start of the messianic age, and can respond – until then, as they say, just learn to live with it! And so with our questions here.
The next step in our reading is even more interesting. Moses goes to the elders and instructs them in what to do. Now you will have to trust me on this, but the two most common phrases throughout the Torah – the five books of Moses – are, ‘And G-d said to Moses’, or ‘And G-d spoke to Moses’. Moses gets a LOT of instructions, directions, advice, counsel, and information from G-d. But here, no such thing – G-d doesn’t say a thing. Moses simply instructs the elders. Apparently Moses already knows what needs to be done, and he takes the initiative to make it happen. The questions this begs are, ‘How did Moses know what to do? Is Moses acting with intiative because he is ‘on board’ – perhaps even looking forward to, or anticipating the opportunity for his close encounter with G-d; a chance to be alone and converse with the Divine? Is this really the same Moses who whines and complains that he is the wrong man for the job?’
Again, no answers, just the echo of our own questions.
And then Moses ascends the mountain, and the cloud covers it, and we are told that NOTHING HAPPENS. Moses goes up into the cloud, and he waits. And he waits, and he waits, and he waits. He waits for a total of SEVEN DAYS and NOTHING happens. What is that about? Why is it part of this story? What does it mean?
Perhaps it will help us to recall that seven is what is called a typological number in Jewish thought, a number that implies wholeness and completeness. It tells the number of the days of the week, it is the length of the biblical festival holidays (Sukkot and Passover), it is the time of the celebration rituals for the couple following a wedding, it is the number of Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Israelites. Seven appears over and over again in Judaism. So we can readily imagine that Moses waiting for seven days has significance in some way.
We don’t know how, really, but there are some suppositions put forth. For example, perhaps Moses, as a human being who had been in Egypt, met with Pharaoh, encountered the Egyptian Magicians, had contact with the Egyptian priests, worship, and gods – including Pharaoh, remember – for Pharaoh was considered a god by the Egyptians – perhaps as a result Moses was not in a sufficiently ritually pure state to encounter G-d when he ascended the mountain, so the seven days might have been necessary for him to be cleansed and purified spiritually and ritually in preparation for the meeting (just as we read that Miriam must wait seven days after her punishment following gossiping about her brother’s wife). Or perhaps Moses was tainted ritually by having encountered death – the ultimate source of ritual impurity in Hebrew, Israelite, and Jewish practice – when he called down the final plague – the death of the first born on the Egyptians, or perhaps it was for the death of the Egyptian military in the Reed Sea. Again, we don’t know, but we can’t help but wonder – and leave it an open question.
And then, G-d calls to Moses from the midst of the cloud. This can only call to mind other images of G-d calling: G-d as the voice within the fire of the burning bush calling Moses in the wilderness. Here on Mount Sinai, and then soon again, when we read of G-d as he will be seen by the Hebrews leading them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and hovering over the Ark in the Tabernacle. God is not said to BE the cloud or the fire, but to be in its midst, just as we are told in Job that G-d was not the whirlwind – G-d appeared as the small still voice.
So Moses enters a thick, impenetrable cloud, and is lost from view. The cloud then takes on the appearance of fire, and thirty-three days pass, more than an entire month! No word, no sign, nothing.
While in the cloud, G-d is speaking to Moses, instructing him, teaching him, showing him, giving him all the rules, laws, teachings, ethics, values, and behaviors that are contained in the Torah and the related texts.
In the cloud things are busy, buzzing, and happening. Moses and G-d are communing, communicating, embraced in an encounter and a relationship.
Outside, it is silence and apartness, all cut off from G-d and Moses.
That is a short look touching on what the Torah says in this reading, and what it causes us to ask and imagine.
I feel the need to finish up the story by jumping ahead a little bit. When Moses descends from the mountain, carrying the tablets and ready to teach, we read that his face is suffused with a glow, and that light emanates from him in rays. [A side note: the word in Hebrew for rays is the same word as horns – so in some translations of the Torah, Moses is described as having horns. That is where Michaelangelo, for example, got the idea both for his frescoes in the Sistine chapel and his later statue of Moses.]
Moses is so filled with light from his encounter and interaction with G-d that he radiates that divine light afterwards, and must wear a veil to protect others. Think of the glow that we see in the face of a lover who has just been with their beloved, and we have a possible parallel.
Now, as we run out of time today, we have to ask the larger question: what does it all mean to us?
We can’t answer all the questions raised, but we can pull out some general thoughts that may help us on our way. Here is my brief attempt to do that. I came up with five points.
1. Moses has come to accept, have faith in, and even trust G-d since the day at the burning bush. G-d already knew Moses, and accepted him as he was. G-d and Moses are a team. So when G-d calls Moses to come in for a pow-wow, Moses goes. More, this is closer to a retreat for the two of them. It is a time alone and apart from everyone else. Moses goes when G-d calls, and does what he knows G-d would want, because there is a relationship between them. G-d knows what Moses needs and offers it, but doesn’t overwhelm Moses by doing it all for him. And it would seem that there is not just a working arrangement, but a mutual sense of respect, even love, that permeates the interaction. Isn’t this the model of a partnership or a loving relationship?
2. Moses changes and grows – we see that because Moses learns stop thinking of himself, and to anticipate what it is that G-d will need or want from him. On the other hand, G-d is immutable and unchanging, but G-d changes G-d’s behavior to suit what Moses needs. At first G-d is directive, then G-d is instructive, and here G-d is collaborative. G-d doesn’t change, but G-d adjusts the means and the tools used to accomplish G-d’s ends. People can grow, and G-d will recognize that and act accordingly in relationship with them.
3. Both G-d and Moses understand the power and meaning of ritual and intentionality, and accept the limitations that it may impose. Moses doesn’t complain or whine about waiting, and G-d doesn’t cause things to happen more rapidly. Each patiently waits, eagerly anticipating the encounter with the other, as two close friends or lovers wait for the time they may be together.
4. There is trust between G-d and Moses. Moses asks no questions, doesn’t hesitate, and expresses no qualms. G-d has no concern that Moses will come when asked to do so. Each knows the other, each believes and trusts the other. They are in a relationship of mutual trust and acceptance.
5. G-d provides Moses with a gift that is meant for Moses and all the Hebrews, and through them, for the whole of humanity. That is, of course, the teachings, including the Torah. At the same time, G-d gives this gift to Moses personally, face to face, as it were, lovingly. And that is how we should receive it, and pass it along to others.
So we see that in this story the heart of it (and I choose that word intentionally) is that it is all about creating and nurturing our relationships. We all wish to find love in life, and this teaching from the Torah tells us that we are also able to find love and relationship with G-d. We must want it, we must seek it out, we must bring it into existence, and we must work at it – just as with any other loving relationship. Knowing that it is possible, and that we have the ability to make it real in our own life, we pray:
May we each find our loving relationships in life and with the divine. May G-d grant us gifts and love as G-d did with Moses. And may we each grow and change to be more attuned to G-d and what G-d wants from us in the world, so that our relationship with G-d will also grow and be strengthened.
And Let us say, Amen.