Torah Reading for Week of March 8 – March 14, 2009
“The Holy Task that transcends the Ecstatic”
by Rabbi Tsvi Bar David ’08
The highest point of Parshat Ki Tisa – and for me the highest point in the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah – is when Moshe Rabbeinu pleads with G-d to show him G-d’s face: Har’eini na et kevodecha! (Exodus 33:18)
This is the cry of the mystic, the one who wishes to directly experience the Divine. Ha-Shem answers Moshe with gentle sympathy: Lo yir’ani adam va-chay (Exodus 33:20) An earthling cannot see me directly and survive the experience. For when the wave realizes that it is part of the ocean, it loses its separate existence and merges back into the sum of all existence – YHWH. So, knowing that Moshe needs to continue in separate consciousness to lead the Jewish People, G-d arranges for Moshe to see the traces, the back-side (achoray), of G-d’s passing-by, but not G-d’s face.
What struck me in re-reading the text (I have read this text with yir’ah/awe many times) in preparing to write this drash, is its context in the Torah. The context is not a guide-book for mystics; rather it describes the sin of the Jewish People in worshipping the golden calf and Moshe and G-d’s response to it.
After the Levites kill three thousand people in punishment for the great sin of knowing that G-d is G-d and worshipping idols anyway, Moshe goes to intercede for the People with G-d to avert further punishment, possibly the People’s extinction. In Exodus 32:31-33 Moshe says: They’ve sinned, forgive them. If not, make my day and wipe me out of Your book!
G-d responds: Don’t tell Me who to wipe out of my book. That’s My job. Now go do your job and lead the People.
Here, Moshe is willing to lose his separate existence – to die – as a kapparah/atonement sacrifice for the lives of the entire People. For his life has no meaning, no purpose, if the People are extinguished. In the theophanic narrative of Ex. 33:18 which follows, Moshe asks for extinction of his separate consciousness in ecstatic merging with YHWH/All-Existence as a reward for having led the People through the ordeal of idol-worship, punishment and forgiveness. Moshe’s request is rejected in both of these narratives.
How amazingly parallel are these two narratives! What can we learn from this parallel? The learning from these two shtiklach of Torah is humbling, overwhelming: Pli’ah da’at mimmeni! (Psalms 139:6) Knowledge of You (YHWH) is too wondrous for me!
Nonetheless, let me suggest the following. There are many ways to come to a state of non-duality or yichud. One is physical death and another is ecstatic merging with the One, temporarily or permanently. The Torah seems to be teaching that the timing of yichud is not up to us. At best, yichud is an evanescent moment. Like Moshe, each of us is sent to this planet with a job to do. Our job is to find our task and to do it with all the forces – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – at our disposal. As G-d points out to Moshe, it is G-d’s job to determine when the royal messenger (you and me) gets to see the face of the Sovereign, whether it be in briefest glimpse or eternal embrace. And yet, as Moshe and we know, it is precisely those fleeting glimpses of the Shechinah that our souls hunger and thirst for, the direct connection of Divine love which sustains us on our individual and collective journey through the sometimes easy but often difficult terrain of our lives.
Adonay, sefatay tiftach ufi yaggid tehilatecha!
My Master, please open up my lips so that my mouth may properly praise
You! (Ps. 51 and meditation before the Amidah)