Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Parashat Ki Tisa: I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours…

By Avi Fox-Rosen
Verse Per Verse

Parashat Ki Tisa is one of the ripest, juiciest, yet in some ways most frustrating parshiyot of Exodus. Just to refresh our memories since we graduated Sunday school: the portion begins with a census and tax code to fund the building of the Ohel Mo’ed, the tent of meeting. It continues with Bezalel’s appointment as chief architect for this project, then a recap of Shabbat sanctity (where we get the “Veshamru” text), and God’s writing of the first set of tablets. Followed by the entire incident of the Golden Calf, and God’s subsequent fury. Moses then talks God down, but when he descends and sees the Bacchaean revelry, he smashes the tablets himself. Darn.
Moses leads a militia of Levites to slaughter 3000 sinners in retribution, then must atone on Israel’s behalf to God. In a delightful meta-moment, Moses threatens God saying, effectively, “Forgive Israel for this calf thing or take me out of yer darn book.” God accepts (thank goodness, as the Books of Moses would be very different without Moses). We are then privy to the intimate details of an encounter between Moses and God in the Ohel Mo’ed, where Moses asks God to reveal Godself, to see God’s face. In a beautifully symbolic anthropomorphism, God allows Moses to see God’s back, but shields Moses with a divine palm that God’s face may not be seen. God proceeds to dictate the second set of commandments. When Moses finally descends the mountain 40 days later, he is a changed man. Rays of light emanate from his face, causing fear in Israelites so that he must veil his face in public from now on, only exposing his face in the tent of meeting in God’s presence. Fin.

What intrigues me most through all of this is the character of Moses, and the tension between the two biggest public commitments he has made in his life up to this point: his commitment to serve the people Israel, and his commitment to serve God.

Moses is a leader trying to balance on a tightrope of intimacy. He is pulled in one direction to the needs and responsibility of serving his community. This is a nitty gritty job! Israelites have needs: needs for food and water in an unforgiving desert; needs for clear laws and guidelines for living as a free people; needs for resolving family disputes; dealings with foreign nations; social services; religious ritual and a sense of the divine… the list goes on, and Moses is at the helm of a newly emerging nation with all of the realities and challenges of that undertaking.

But Moses is pulled in another direction at the same time; a yearning for transcendence, for meaning. Moses desires more than anything to look God in the face, to see God panim el panim. God must remind Moses that no human being can look into unbridled divinity and live. Yet Moses does not fear for his life- it seems that at least a part of him would gladly die for access to a Godly presence of mind.

When I approach it from a certain perspective, I find myself in a bind similar to Moses. I experience in my own small way the tension of being pulled between “service of Israel” and “staring God in the face.” I understand service of Israel as the experience of being a human of flesh and blood. My service of Israel is the service of my physical needs for food and shelter. It is the nitty gritty of being human. My need to be involved in and serve my local and global community, make a living, find camaraderie. I understand my desire to “see God’s face” as the yearning for transcendence; to serve a pure creativity that could lead to losing touch with the land of the living, and death by over stimulation, self absorption, and loss of compassion.

Obviously, the dichotomy is not simple- as Jews we understand that Im ein kemach, ein Torah, that without bread, we ain’t gonna learn no Torah. And without Israel, Moses cannot serve God.
But here Moses serves us as an ideal of how to live in this contradiction. None of Moses’ greatest desires for himself, his God, or his people will be fully consummated in his lifetime- but his life is spent in service.

What of Moses’ glimpse of God’s back?
Is this the ultimate tease of Moses’ life? Or is it the small concession by God that will allow Moses to keep serving? An admission that though God cannot allow Moses to be fully absorbed into divine relationship, God understands that Moses needs to feel valued, and have access to greater intimations of transcendence?

I wonder if Moses felt that he had gotten what he wanted from God. He had gained access to a level of communion with God that no other human will ever have. Yet that closeness with God created a greater distance from his people. His very appearance inspired fear in the people he served, and he had to shield his face with a veil for the rest of his life, only uncovering his face to God.

Is this really any different than how any of us lives?
We all wear the veils of public life. We act with courtesy to save face, engage in social graces- we speak in veiled terms, insinuating through politeness. The times when we take off the veil are few and far between- only in our most intimate relationships.

Food for thought.
Let me know what you’re thinking !

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