When it comes to human emotion, is there such a thing as political correctness?
In love, we are drawn to some more than others. But from the Almighty this favoritism sounds shocking: In this week’s portion, an angry God insists, in essence, that He will grant favor to whomever He likes and love whomever He chooses. This may sound petulant, but on a deeper level, such unexpected sentiments have the effect of bringing God closer to Moses and Israel. Could this have been the original intention?
As last week’s portion describes, the Israelhad just experienced the high point in their spiritual life as a people. To the accompaniment of lightning and thunderbolts, a transcendent God had given them the Torah. God had “come down” on Mount Sinai and begun talking directly to an entire nation.
How did they respond? The experience was too intense. They backed off. All the pyrotechnics, especially the immediacy of the divine voice, was too much for them. They begged a reluctant Moses, known for his more familiar relationship with God — described as “face-to-face, as one talks with a friend” (Exodus 33:10) —to relay His message. Their reaction illustrates how dependent they were on Moses, which made their impending misconduct not so surprising. Almost immediately after the giving of the Torah, our stiff-necked ancestors could not wait for Moses to come down from Sinai, and in this week’s portion are already preparing a replacement with the idolatrous Golden Calf.
Precisely when the nation has sunk to its lowest, there emerges the greatest revelation of Divine Presence ever granted: God articulates the Divine Name, and spells out the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion.(Exodus 34: 5-7)
Authors of midrash, in every succeeding generation, are fascinated by the emotional, down-to-earth interchange that made such a revelation possible.
The persona God adopts in relation to Moses is not one of an indifferent, elevated “spiritual” entity but rather one of a Being that suffers from betrayal and abandonment by a beloved nation. It is an agony we can all understand.
The Almighty declares Himself ready to destroy His erstwhile favorites and take Moses and his children as His new chosen people. (Exodus 32: 9-10) Does the all-compassionate God really intend to wipe out Israel, or is it only a ploy to provoke the response necessary that will make Him change His mind?
Countless midrashim believe the latter: At this moment, God “needs” a very special kind of human, Moses, to bring out His compassion. What special gift did Moses have?
Midrash tells us that, from the outset, as much as God “liked” or had special feeling for Moses, what brought these two together was the quasi-parental love both felt for Israel. They established a pact: When either was angry, the other would soothe him.
Underlying His threat of genocide, God wanted Moses to stand up for the people. It is like a king who is very angry with his son. He calls in the boy’s tutor and cries out, “Let me alone and I will kill him!” The last thing the king really wants is to be left alone with the boy; he does not know what damage he might cause. What he needs is some intervention that will change the entire picture.
But what can Moses do? He has been given only one encouraging indication: “You and only you have found chen” — that is, grace or favor — “in My eyes.” (33:17)
God and Moses established a pact: When either was angry, the other would soothe him.
On the basis of this personal relationship, Moses makes his feint: “If indeed I have found favor in Your eyes, then let me know Your ways.” Reward me. Like any spiritual seeker, Moses dearly wished to “know” and love God. In context, however, he mentions this desire only for a very pragmatic reason. He is aware that, above all, God wants to be “known” by all Israel and the entire world. That prospect alone, rather than an encounter with one individual, is a sure way to soothe hard feelings.
Having succeeded in getting God’s attention, Moses can slip in a petition on behalf of the entire people: “And recognize that this nation is your people.” Moses then asks God to consider: “For how shall it be known that I have found grace in Your eyes, I and Your people, but by Your direct Presence going with both me and Your people?”(Exodus 33:16)
Needless to say, God agrees to everything “because you have found favor in My eyes.” What changes? One little word, “chen,” meaning favor, grace, love — and “nothingness,” as in favor granted unconditionally. Because Moses asked nothing for himself, he was able to make room for an entire nation.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Friday, March 5, 2021
Adar 21, 5781
Light candles at 5:34 pm.
First Torah: Ki Tisa: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Second Torah: Parshat Parah: Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-36
Shabbat ends 6:34 pm.