Ki Tisa: Encountering God

V’atah, im na matzati chen b’einecha, hodi’eni na et d’rachecha, v’eida’acha
[Moses said,] “And now, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please let me know your ways, that I may know you…” (Exodus 33:13)

Vayomer “Hareini na et k’vodecha!”
And [Moses] said, “Please, let me behold Your Presence!” (Exodus 33:18)

How does the Torah describe God? Not by doctrine, or dogma, but by encounter. Not with systematic theology, but with stories. I find this approach very refreshing. Stories do not demand agreement or adherence – they simply invite engagement. We hear a story, and we are living that story, imagining it, putting ourselves into the scene. “Once upon a time” is in fact always “now”, as time collapses and we immerse ourselves into the narrative. Stories also can never be reduced to one meaning – they demand interpretation, and we humans delight in plumbing what a good story might mean.

A theology or a creed attempts to fix a particular conception of the nature of our infinite reality, which in religious shorthand we refer to in English as “God”. This approach, while certainly of value, will always fall short of a full apprehension of reality, because the infinite cannot be defined. It is oxymoronic to try to define that which is infinite, that which has no limit. On the other hand, while we cannot define that which is infinite, we can certainly encounter and have a relationship with the infinite reality that we perceive around and within us. When we pause and gaze at a starry sky, we encounter the infinite mystery. When we pause and look into another human face, we encounter that which we can never fully understand. And yet we yearn to know more deeply, to encounter more intimately; such is our glorious human nature.

We can have a relationship with that which is beyond our complete understanding. Our tradition names that infinite mystery YHVH, Life Unfolding. The Torah tells us stories about our ancestors’ encounters with that mystery. The Torah bequeaths to us not a fixed definition of God, which cannot be contained in any final description, but a call to encounter God. This takes courage, because the Infinite not only fascinates, draws us, and compels us, but also terrifies us. At Mount Sinai, after the revelation the people trembled and fell back from the mountain. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will listen, but let not God speak with us any further, lest we die!” Moses said, “Be not afraid!”… But the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. (Exodus 15-18

Moses is our hero, the one who, somehow, is willing and able to walk into that thick cloud of unknowing and encounter the Infinite: V’diber YHVH el Moshe panim el panim, ka’asher y’daber ish el re’ehu – YHVH would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another. (Exodus 33:11) Moses is fearless, engaging the Great Mystery in impassioned discourse, arguing for the life of his people despite their terrors and smallness and cowardice, despite their unwillingness to engage in the relationship that YHVH desires to have with them, with each of us.

As I read the Torah, along with countless commentators before me, I come to this conclusion: God – the Infinite Mystery of our being – desires us (to use human terminology, which is all that we’ve got), longs to know us face to face. In this week’s portion, after the Children of Israel reject that relationship in favor of the Golden Calf, it is Moses who still longs to know God. It is Moses who ascends the mountain once again, and to whom YHVH then reveals as much of the Divine character as any human being can apprehend:

And [Moses] said, Please, let me behold Your Presence! And [YHVH] answered, I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will display My Essence, and reveal all the grace and compassion that make up My Essence. (Exodus 33:18-19)

When Moses descends from the mountain soon thereafter, carrying with him the second set of tablets, symbolic of the restored relationship with YHVH, Moses is transformed. His face is radiant. Light pours from his countenance, so much so that the Children of Israel initially shrink from him as they had shrunk away from the holy mountain. But then they draw near, so that Moses can teach them.

Moses is our hero and our teacher because of his faith, which literally means trust. He trusts enough to walk through the terror of encountering the Infinite. He trusts enough to walk directly into the thick cloud of unknowing, the place where our intense desire to define and control reality is nullified. He trusts enough to become intimate with that great Mystery before which we are, strangely, simultaneously infinitesimally insignificant and also of singular importance. Moses is not able to define God – no one is – but Moses encounters God, and then brings back to us the fruits of that living relationship.

In the words of Martin Buber:
Real faith does not mean professing what we hold true in a ready-made formula… It means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery formula. It means that, from the very roots of our being, we should always be prepared to live with this mystery as one being lives with another. Real faith means the ability to endure life in the face of this mystery.

May we all be blessed with the faith and courage we need to not shrink away from the immensity of life, so that we might experience the rich fruits of our continuing encounter with Life Unfolding.

Shabbat Shalom and love,
Rabbi Jonathan