In this parashah, we read about extremes of faith. Moses received the last of God’s directives while on Mount Sinai. He came down the mountain to the sound and spectacle of the Israelites praying to a golden calf, an idol. In disgust and anger, Moses destroyed the precious tablets God Himself had written. Soon after there was an interaction between God and Moses where Moses was almost taken to the heavens in terms of spiritual closeness. The parashah ends with another presentation of the Ten Commandments.
This is a profound narrative. The previous Torah portions recounted God’s directions for building a beautiful “Mishkan” (portable sanctuary). The clothing of the Kohanim- the priests- was described in great detail. God was well aware that the Israelite refugees craved extraordinary beauty to help achieve a level of awe and observance.
In this parashah, Moses went up Mount Sinai alone and disappeared behind a column of fire and cloud for 40 days and 40 nights. The people had been warned that Moses would be away for over a month. But like most people, B’nei Yisrael found it hard to believe that their aged leader could survive the dramatic conflagration. So Moses came down to witness singing and dancing around the Golden Calf.
When Moses disappeared the people decided to create their own beautiful focus of prayer, the Golden Calf. God’s punishment was severe. Three thousand men were killed for the sin.
Moses had devoted his heart and soul to saving B’nei Yisrael from slavery and leading them through the desert. The demands on him were huge – leading them physically, judging them, and negotiating with God on their behalf. He acted as arbitrator time and again between them and God when they transgressed certain orders. Now, as righteous as he was, Moses asked God for something more. He asked to see God.
God put Moses into the cleft of a rock. According to the text (Ex. 33: 22), God protected Moses from seeing His face but allowed Moses to see His back. Moses was a transformed man. The experience took him to the greatest spiritual heights. Thereafter rays of light shone from his face.
This section of Torah is fascinating. It leaves us with a number of thoughts to ponder- the burden Moshe carried and the fact that he waited so long to ask God for greater closeness and identification. The text presents the heights of receiving the word of God on a mountaintop contrasted so quickly by the weakness of His people. This story underlines the fractious yet extraordinary relationship we have with God. Moses couldn’t see God’s face and neither can we, but God encourages us to get closer. God allows those who desire it to get closer through our prayers, meditations, and actions.
My husband, Les Lightstone, mentioned an interesting point. God didn’t show Moshe His “face”. He showed Moshe His back. In the same way, we cannot see what our future will hold or what God may do. We can only see what has happened, look “back ” on it, and learn from our past.
Have a Shabbat Shalom. May it be one of peace, health, and an appreciation of beauty.