- Thus the Eternal delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. . . . And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Eternal; they had faith in the Eternal and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:30-31)
- "He [Moses] said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" And [God] answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. . . ." (Exodus 33:18-19)
- "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets. . . . " (Exodus 34:1)
- [God] said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation. . . . (Exodus 34:10)
Pesach is the great American Jewish holiday, combining a festival of freedom with an opportunity to celebrate our Jewish identity with family and friends. With its arrival, we pause in our cycle of weekly parashiyot and recall the Exodus story and the Israelites' struggle to realize their spiritual freedom. It is quite straightforward to conduct a seder and connect it to its origins in Exodus 34:18, "You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread." But this simple relationship can mask aspects of our Jewish selves and prevent us from delving into a far richer relationship between text and tradition.
Sometimes we are surprised at seeing signs of God in our lives. Whether it's feeling awe upon seeing a natural wonder or having a prayer answered during a personal crisis, we sense the possibility of drawing closer to God. But more often than not-given our chaotic and secular lives-we doubt that we can truly experience God and be authentically Jewish.
Moses is deeply stung by his peoples' building of the Golden Calf. He feels adrift from everything that is familiar and shares the Israelites' doubts about God's existence. He asks for guidance and requests a direct encounter with God, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" (Exodus 33:18).
God first answers Moses literally, allowing him to see "My back" (Exodus 33:23), but then focuses on spiritual attributes. "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show" (Exodus 33:18-19). The encounter continues with God's metaphorical answer: Moses is able to "see" the Divine through the three great rubrics of Judaism: God, Torah, and Israel.
Moses engages Torah within this passage in two ways: first, literally, by procuring the two luchot, "tablets," with the Aseret HaDibrot, the "Ten Commandments," on them, and second, through the injunction to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread. God makes Moses a partner in this second receiving of the tablets, commanding that he "carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets . . ." (Exodus 34:1). Moses's smashing of the first set of tablets demonstrates that it is not enough for God to hand us a text. We must also be involved in appropriating the text, or it will be easily discarded. The message is that our personal involvement in all aspects of Torah is central if we are to take study to heart.
This story is so affirming of God's presence and involvement in our lives that it brings to mind the song, Dayeinu, "It's enough for us." Indeed, either divine self-revelation or the gift of Torah alone would make this a profound story. Instead, what follows is equally, if not more, affirming. "He [God] said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation . . . " (Exodus 34:10).
This is not the first b'rit, or "covenant," between God and the people Israel, but it embodies a number of new elements. Earlier covenants, made with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, occurred within an extended family, but this one is established with a fully developed nation, one that has tasted bitterness along with possibility. It is drawn up despite Israel's having strayed and reflects a relationship between God and Israel that transcends the vagaries of human nature.
Moses's ability to bring Judaism to life is never clearer than it is here. Needing to affirm God's reality, submitting to divine authority, and working with God to establish a covenant and bring Torah into the world, he stands as a timeless model for us. We too are determined to live Jewish lives but often limit ourselves to a ritual or two like the seder. In this story, we see not only the full dimension of the Jewish tradition, but also how its elements are integrally connected. Pesach observance is critical, but it is only introduced after the rubrics of God, Torah, and Israel are in place.
Ritual observance can be profound, but only when it points toward deeper meaning. This story stands as a challenge to each of us. Moses invites God into his people's lives through a personal encounter with the Divine, Torah, and a covenant between God and Israel, and here we see how these threads can be woven together as a model of a complete Jewish life.
BY THE WAY
- All the more need, then, for interpretations of Sinai that render the word of God in Torah adequate to basic-and ever-changing-human needs; all the more need, especially, for religion, which can step into the breach of disbelief with rituals that continue to provide meaning and sustain covenant even when a surer faith is lacking. (Arnold M. Eisen, Taking Hold of Torah [Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000], p. 67)
- Just as much as there was, and is, a giving of Torah that is active and involves God, so, too, there was (and is) a receiving of Torah that is active and involves the children of Israel. The Torah is at once fully human and fully divine, charged with an electricity that can launch a people into eternity and restore a world to fullness and peace. (Bradley Shavit Artson and Miriyam Glazer, The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Vision and Dreams [New York: Contemporary Books, 2001], p. 154)
Three generations back
my family had only
to light a candle
and the world parted.
Today, Friday afternoon
I disconnect clocks and phones.
When night fills my house
I begin saving
(Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings, [New York: Harper Collins, 1999], p. 121)
- The story presents both an image and a voice of God. Does either of these draw you toward the Divine, or is one more effective than the other?
- How can we participate in receiving Torah? What routines or rituals in our household or our personal lives can help us embrace Torah?
- What rituals enable us to keep the covenant between God and the Jewish people? Which ones do you embrace? Which ones are successful in your community? Are there rituals that you or your community should consider practicing?
Dan Danson is the rabbi at Mount Sinai Congregation, Wausau, Wisconsin.
Yom Shevi'i Pesach, Exodus 14:30-15:21
The Torah: A Modern Commentary , pp. 481‒490; Revised Edition, pp. 437–442
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 385‒392