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Torah Commentary
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot (October 22, 2016)

Merrill Alpert, Education Director, Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center

My name is Merrill Alpert, and I have just joined the staff of the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center. I recently moved to New York from California and am honored to serve as the education director of the Skirball Center. My husband and I have relocated in order to be closer to family, who we are blessed to have sharing our new adventures. We have four daughters, three of whom live in Brooklyn (and one in Detroit). I am proud of each of them for the contributions that they make to the communities as Jewish professionals and through their volunteer and social-justice activities.

When I was asked to write a D’var Torah for Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot (the Intermediate Days of Sukkot), I immediately sought their wisdom and found that one of our daughters, Sarra, had written one for Mechon Hadar here in New York a few years ago. Sarra, who is the national program director of Avodah, the Jewish Service Corps, agreed to let me share her teaching with our community. I wish you all a Shanah Tovah and a Chag Sameach for Sukkot. [Note: The reading for this Shabbat is Exodus 33:12-34:26 from Parashat Ki Tisa.]

When the sin of idolatry is named in the Ten Commandments, the language used is, “You shall not make for yourself a fesel, a graven image.” This command is reiterated at the end of this week’s parashah, Ki Tisa, after the Israelites have indeed built and worshiped an idol, igniting God’s fury. However, this time, the language has changed to, “You shall not make for yourself elohei masecha — molten gods.”

The Kotzker Rebbe’s translation of elohei masecha may give us a clearer understanding of this choice of words. He translates elohei masecha as “fixed in one form” — seeing the prohibition against idolatry as: “Do not make for yourself a god that is fixed in form with unchanging routines.”

Rabbi Neal Loevinger expands on this: “Our experience of spirituality and religion must grow and change over time — if we have the same conception of God at 50 that we did at 15, then we’ve missed something important.... The great genius of Judaism is its insistence that we never stop striving for holiness and spiritual growth — that there is no way to ‘grasp’ the God of Israel entirely, no ending point in our quest for insight.”

The Israelites at this point were unable or unwilling to look for different angles, to move beyond their fixed understanding; they had relied on Moshe as the physical representation of their connection to God, and without him they immediately required a new physical form to direct themselves towards. When God tells Moshe that the people have made an idol and are worshiping it, He describes them as kashe oref — stiff-necked. They literally are unable to shift their vision from their specific, one-track conception of God.

Some rabbis have debated the size of the calf idol created. We do not know how much jewelry Aaron collected, but even a whole lot of jewelry melted down can only make a relatively small object. Therefore, the image of the calf-worship is startling — hundreds of thousands of people gathered together, completely focused on an object possibly only the size of a person or smaller. The physical metaphor goes further, considering that this is taking place in the desert. Spending time in the desert is a breathtaking experience for many reasons, one of them being the dramatically different relationship that you have there to space, to horizon. Surrounded by all of this expansive space — by this physical reminder of how much there is always to take in, of how many angles are available and worthwhile in attempting an understanding of anything, let alone something as enormously mysterious as God — they are focused entirely on this small golden object, literally stiff-necked, looking only straight ahead at their set idea of God.

In contrast to the Israelites, the relationship between Moshe and God goes through dramatic shifts and dialogue throughout this same storyline. For example, when God first tells Moshe of the Golden Calf, He forewarns Moshe about His destructive intentions, saying v’atah hanicha li — v’yichar-api vahem va’achalem... — “Now let me be, that My anger may burn against them and I shall annihilate them.” The choice of words in hanicha li — (let Me be, or, desist from Me) — is unusual; God is asking Moshe to let Him commit this act, as if Moshe has the power to stop God. Looking at this verse, Rabbi Abbahu said “This teaches that Moshe seized hold of the Holy One blessed be He, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment and said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.” This is a total upending of our usual understanding of the human-God paradigm, and as Avivah Zornberg points out, while the midrash takes the image significantly farther than what is provided in the text, it is God who allows for that shift with the words “let Me be.” There is such space within the terms of the relationship between Moshe and God that they may act for each other as an ezer knegdo — one who helps you sometimes by being against you. Zornberg maintains that God’s phrasing is a veiled cry for help — a type of “hold me back” where God actually wants to be held back. There is room in their relationship such that God may turn to Moshe and ask to be challenged, and Moshe may feel able to do so.

The complex nature of their relationship plays out even further towards the end of this parashah, after Moshe has gone back up the mountain to receive the second set of tablets. This encounter begins with an admission of exhaustion from Moshe. God has threatened to remove His presence from the people, and Moshe tells God that he does not think he can lead them alone. After God agrees to go with him, Moshe asks (or perhaps demands) hareni na et kvodecha — “Please, show me Your glory.” Why does Moshe ask for this at this moment?
I think this comes from the same exhaustion he has just expressed to God — he is saying, We have been through so much recently – I have seen the heights of Your power and of Your anger, I have known what it is to need You and to be needed by You — I now need to be re-grounded. Remind me of the You I was used to, show me that glorified image, give me something concrete. It is not really all that different from the Israelites’ need — I am overwhelmed by the possibilities within the space that surrounds me — give me something fixed, something on which to focus my understanding.

God’s response is to gently turn Moshe away from this idea. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you... but you cannot see My face.” The choice of words is odd, considering that the word God uses — panai, my face — is the same exact word that was used a few verses previously, when it says that God and Moshe spoke face to face — panim el panim. Why does God now say that Moshe cannot see His face, at a moment when the text describes them as already face to face? Rashi believes that God chooses this word as a way of limiting the extent of Himself that Moses may see — panim in both cases being a metaphor. God’s response again reminds us that we are reading of an interaction — and God is here asserting His terms of the exchange, saying that there are aspects of who God is that may not be seen, even by Moshe with whom He has shared such intimacy. This is part and parcel of this idea of fluidity, of embracing space and change — that the attendant contradictions and complexities will reside within us, in a way that we may never be able to fully articulate or show to another.

In these chapters, Moshe experiences a very wide range of God’s emotional and physical capabilities — seeing God’s anger, experiencing God’s need, hearing God recite the attributes of His glory, even seeing a physical aspect — and rather than being frightened by this, he is elevated by the contact, to the extent that the text records that the skin of his face glowed, became radiant, which Rashi relates to karnei hahod — “He wore the rays of splendor.”

This is the lesson to us — that we can be either overwhelmed or elevated by our contact with holiness, depending on whether we are prepared to receive that experience in the many, varying, sometimes contradictory forms that it may take. There are so many things — relationships, the history that is created around us, the choices we make daily — which must be understood in all of their complexity and contradictions in order to be fully lived and appreciated. When we are convinced of a particular viewpoint, looking only straight ahead at our own beliefs, the questions and challenges and alternative perspectives which come at us from the sides either never enter our line of vision or knock us completely off our course. When there is an openness to the range of possibility, a willingness to try and take in all that surrounds us, questions can only encourage growth, a more nuanced understanding, a more real and alive relationship to who and what we engage with.

The Mishkan, instructions for which are also included in this parashah, brings us back to the original question of fixed and fluid space. The contrast between the Mishkan and the calf extends the concept — an idol is a set, fixed attempt to physicalize holiness, while the Mishkan is a space within which to continually create holiness. As the Israelites are constantly changing, the Mishkan is constantly changing, because the Mishkan is as much about the people who enter it and the human-divine interactions which occur there as about the idea of it being a space where God may dwell. This idea of fluidity extends to every aspect of the Mishkan — it is even physically moveable. The Mishkan works around an appreciation of space. It creates holy space, to be experienced rather than worshiped. Perhaps this extends to our relationship with God as well, as a Being that we experience as well as worship. May this be a kavanah for us in all of the spaces and relationships that we inhabit and create — to continually experience growth, to be present in all of our rich complexity, and to accept and appreciate that complexity in all that surrounds us.

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