Tdhis week’s Torah portion is a throwback — way back to Exodus, when the Israelites were about to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This seems a little strange. What is so important about this section of the Torah that makes it worthy of rereading? And why this section, of all the truly important moments the Bible has detailed thus far?
In a way, it makes sense that, during weeks that are defined by holidays (Happy Feast of Tabernacles, everyone!) we should be especially intentional about the devotional texts we read. And this text does make a pretty good choice — it’s the one that describes the three most important Feasts (Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot) and the commandment to go to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at those times each year. Actually, if I’m being precise, Sukkot isn’t mentioned here — just Shavuot and Passover and their requisite commandments and sacrifices — but Exodus 34:24 does say that “no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times a year,” and Sukkot is mentioned as one of those three times in Deuteronomy 16, so I guess we’re just supposed to be cross-referencing and keeping those details in mind.
All that being said, that’s not the part of the Torah portion that took my breath away. Not by a long shot. And that’s because the first chapter of the Torah portion is a beautiful meditation on trust, faith, and spirituality. I kind of can’t believe I missed it the first time around.
That must be why we read this book over and over again.
It starts with a candid conversation. Moses is describing the support he’s going to need from God to be the leader that the Israelites deserve, and God is promising to be there for him. The text is a little confusing; there’s a lot of ‘he said to him and then he said to him,’ which makes it a little hard to keep track of who the speaker is at any given moment. It strikes me that, whether it was intentional or not, this is a useful literary tool. By melding both speakers into one being, it humbles God. There’s an intimacy here that couldn’t have been attained by giving God his signature booming-voice-persona.
“Now, if I have truly gained Your favor,” says Moses in Exodus 33:13, “pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.”
In other words, show me who you are. We’re in this together. You trust me, but how can I trust you if I don’t know who you are, haven’t seen who you are?
“Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” says Moses. (Exodus 33:18)
But God can’t do that for him. Not because He is being stubborn (or stiff-necked, as He calls the Israelites on many occasions), but because he needs to protect Moses, who he cares for. “You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live,” says God in Exodus 33:20. Instead, they devise a plan. Moses will stand on a cliff by the rockface, and God will pass by him. “…as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by,” says God, “Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:23)
That’s the best He can do without endangering Moses’ wellbeing. Moses is, unfortunately, going to have to accept the best that God can do. God is going to have to compromise. Together, they’ll create a reality borne of love and faith in one another’s best intentions.
Compromise is hard, and so is trusting that everything will, in fact, be alright. I don’t know about you, but I tend to think I know how things will turn out even before they’ve happened. ‘There’s no way I’m gonna get through this day without being miserable,’ I think, as I look at my Google calendar and yawn. Based on how last night went, I’m inferring how this morning will be. Many times, this prophecy proves correct.
Am I that good, or did I decide ahead of time how I would view the day, thus dooming myself to misery?
Maybe it’s a little of both.
Yesterday, my toddler (who, until a week ago, had never taken a nap without nursing first) screamed for his Ima and I for 30 minutes before finally, tearfully, falling asleep. His wonderful teacher assured us that this transition is completely natural and that it would take a few days for him to settle into the routine. Based on this and the fact that he loves nursing to sleep, I thought I knew that he would scream today as well. But that didn’t happen; he cuddled up on his cot, squirmed quietly for 15 minutes and slipped into slumber.
Maybe we want to believe that we know what is going to happen because it makes us feel like we’re in control. The truth is, though, that there is no control. I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, next week, five minutes from now. What would happen if I trusted my kiddo to be capable enough to handle his transitions and difficult moments, if I trusted myself to make the best of a hard day, if I trusted that good things may still come, despite all evidence to the contrary? What a relief that would be.
Reading about how Moses and God trusted one another in that rare moment of partnership and closeness is a reminder to take a deep breath and trust. Trust the people in your life. Trust the universe to work its strange magic. Trust yourself to hold it all together in the palms of your, only human, hands.