For most of our congregations, the procession of Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah will begin with a textual reminder that Israel "knows" that Adonai is God. (Deuteronomy 4:35) Gates of Prayer translates the passage this way: "You have been shown [har'eita], that you may know, that the Eternal alone is our God; there is none beside Him." (page 538) As much as anything else in our tradition, this liturgical moment is a clear and unambiguous declaration of faith, based on the empirical experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. They "know" that Adonai is God because they have "seen" what God can do.
Our Torah portion for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot (Exodus 33:12-34:26) prepares us for Simchat Torah. On the Shabbat before the Simchat Torah celebration, we are given a strong textual reminder that seeing is believing. It comes in the midst of a crisis of faith for, of all people, Moses: "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways" (Exodus 33:13) followed by "Oh, let me behold [har'eini] Your Presence!" (Exodus 33:18)
Moses is an ordinary human being with an extraordinary relationship to God. Time and again, the Torah reminds us just how human Moses is: Moses has a violent temper. He gets frustrated easily. He is sensitive to criticism. He has a healthy ego. When all the pressures of leadership and its responsibilities become too much to bear, Moses declares a need to see God, to actually experience the reality of God's existence. His is more than a crisis of faith. Moses has a burning need to know that despite everything that has gone wrong between Israel and God (e.g., the golden calf episode), God still favors Moses.
For skeptics, there is no proof of God's existence. For the faithful, there is no denying God's existence. The rest of us-we who exist day to day with very human questions and doubt-need to look for God in the daily experiences of our lives. If Moses is allowed an occasional crisis of faith, we can be permitted our own moments of fear and trembling. Perhaps as we walk with our children around the synagogue, flags waving, Torah scrolls held high, we should remind ourselves that through this experience we can see the glory of God.
Questions for Discussion
- On what other occasions does Moses express anger at God?
- Does the Torah "prove" that only Adonai is God? If so, how?
- In what way is Moses' crisis of faith connected to the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot?
For Further Reading
- The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, pp. 655ff.
- A Companion to the Authorized Daily Prayerbook by Israel Abrahams, p. 149.
- Judaism: Development and Life by Leo Trepp, pp. 294 ff.
Rabbi Mark L. Shook is the spiritual leader of Congregation Temple Israel in St. Louis, MO.