Shavuot Dvar Torah: Revelation through Built Intimacy
By: Shifra Elman, Jewish Studies Teacher
In a post-agrarian society, the rabbis connected the holiday of Shavuot to the Israelites receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic telling in Exodus 19 reads as follows: Moshe goes up the mountain, receives the tablets inscribed with the Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Utterances or better known as the Ten Commandments) and they are given over to the Israelites who stood at a safe distance from the foot of the mountain. There was thunder, lightning, and smoke! It was all very dramatic and the Israelites accepted the Aseret HaDisbrot, which has some of Judaism’s greatest hits such as, I am YHWH, Do Not Kill, Do Not Steal, Remember the Sabbath Day, Honor Your Parents, etc.
Overlain throughout the entire relationship between God and Israelites is a theme of deep intimacy. Even in the Exodus 19 telling, the Israelites are told not to be physically intimate with their partners in preparation for the intimate moment with God. But, we recall that there is another telling of the Revelation on Mount Sinai as there are two sets of tablets that were preserved and placed in the Aron (Ark of the Covenant)—a set of broken tablets and a set of whole tablets. This is because there were two attempts made to give the Torah to the Israelites, the stiff-necked people.
Having recently been freed from their enslavement in Egypt, the Israelites are in the Sinai desert. Moshe leaves them with his brother, Aharon, to ascend Mount Sinai in order to commune with God and learn the Torah:
When the people saw that Moshe was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered to Aharon and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moshe, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him”…he [Aharon] took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:1-4)
Now, this is a pretty intense reaction! After all the miracles they had just witnessed in Egypt and the parting of the Yam Suf (Red Sea) which saved their lives, they doubt Moshe and God and create an idol to worship as their god. “As soon as Moshe came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain!” (Exodus 32:19) This was a major breach of trust between God and the Israelites. But, as there was already a familial covenant in place between the family of Avraham and God, when God wanted to destroy the Israelites for this breach of trust, Moshe implored YHWH on their behalf in the name of the Patriarchs; Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael. This is what saved them from total annihilation at that moment; invoking the Patriarchs who came to God as fully-fledged and flawed individuals.
It is relevant to note that Yisrael is used as the name for Yaakov in this instance. Yisrael is one of three names that the Torah uses for Yaakov (Yeshurun being the third). The name Yisrael was given to Yaakov after he wrestled with the divine being during the tumultuous night before he was to meet his estranged twin brother, Esav. Yaakov was in a state of anxiety and sent hundreds of sheep, goats, camels, cows, and donkeys ahead as gifts to placate his potentially murderous twin who may have still held a grudge regarding the stolen birthright. After Yaakov sent all his possessions and loved ones over the ford of Yabok, he wrestled all night with an unnamed assailant. “Said he, Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. Yaakov asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Yaakov named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Genesis 32: 29 -31)
The naked vulnerability of the face-to-face encounter with another person is described most beautifully by Emanuel Levinas, “The face is a living presence; it is expression. The life of expression consists in undoing the form in which the existent, exposed as a theme, is thereby dissimulated. The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already discourse. He who manifests himself comes, according to Plato’s expression, to his own assistance. He at each instant undoes the form he presents.” (Emanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity 66) To this, I would add naming and calling a person by name. Just as the divine being who fought Yaakov would not reveal its name, knowing someone’s name and calling them by that name has an intimacy that is profoundly personal. Combine calling someone by their name with looking at them face-to-face, and a deep presence is created in that moment; felt-time can stop and profundity is experienced by both parties. Such is the intimacy of being face-to-face with someone and calling them by their name. This is the way that in this story God speaks to Moshe, face-to-face. “YHWH would speak to Moshe face to face, as one man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:11) It is also noteworthy that the name for God most used in these stories is the tetragrammaton. This name is most often used in a relational sense in the Torah, versus the more abstract ideas of a deity when Elohim is used. “The Tetragrammaton is used, when expression is given to the direct, intuitive notion of God, which characterizes the simple faith of the multitude or the ardour of the prophetic spirit…” (Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothosis, 31)
It is then that the rage, anger, and retribution over the betrayal comes into play. Moshe stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the YHWH, come here!” And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” The Levites did as Moshe had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day. And Moshe said, “Dedicate yourselves to YHWH this day—for each of you has been against son and brother—that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.” The next day Moshe said to the people, “You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to YHWH; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin.” Moshe went back to YHWH and said, “Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold. (Exodus 32: 26-31)
When there is a breach of trust and harm has been committed to the relationship, rage surges up within us and bursts forth “slaying brother, neighbor, and kin.” The rage is delicious, it is justified and we will be heard and feared in our anger over the betrayal of our deepest trust and vulnerability. The anger is an assertion of self against what was once joined. The guilty party can say nothing to us as our rage is so very justified. But rage, like all passions, cannot sustain us or our relationships. So Moshe continues and tells the Levites to dedicate themselves to God because even justified rage and violence in the Torah is still considered something that will make one profane, and a rededication of one’s self to a holy state of being is needed. One cannot remain in that state of anger,—it in of itself is only important in that moment, to communicate the severity of the breach of trust—and it must be moved through or the relationship can never be repaired or deepened.
The Sin of the Golden Calf is an interesting one in this context. I am thinking about this story arc as the hard work of building meaningful intimate relationships with our friends and partners, and the words the Israelites chant in their ecstasy to the golden god are telling: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” They weren’t trying to find a new god or a new relationship, they were yearning to reconnect with their old god! But what was the reason for the disconnection in the first place? Was it because they had changed from an enslaved people to a free one, and the way they saw God no longer worked with their new identity? It is plausible, they had never known freedom before; they went from having the taskmasters of Egypt to being led by God and Moshe. And then, somewhat abruptly, all their overlords were gone. Left to their own devices, who were they? They wanted their savior God back, so they made an idol and transferred that desire to the new god by invoking the remembrance of the God that brought them out of Egypt. How often do we personally change but fail to realize our partners have multitudes within themselves, and change as well? That we cannot go back to the old way of relating but we must create new pathways and means of communication to honor the new places we have found within ourselves so we can nakedly be face-to-face with our friends and lovers?
“When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery. YHWH said to Moshe, ‘Say to the Israelite people, “You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you!”’” (Exodus 33:3-5) The Israelites saw their transgression, felt the anger and retribution of their spurned God, felt embarrassed, and repented.
Here is where it gets really interesting! Moshe is told to carve a second set of tablets: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered…So Moshe carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai, as YHWH had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets with him. YHWH came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name YHWH. YHWH passed before him and proclaimed: “YHWH! YHWH! a YHWH compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:1-7)
Moshe doesn’t proclaim the Aseret HaDibrot as they are written on the tablets! Instead, the verses say Moshe, supported by God’s presence, spoke the Yud Gimmel Middot (The Thirteen Attributes of God). These thirteen attributes are what we say over and over again on Yom Kippur to remind God to be compassionate towards us by invoking God’s multifaceted character traits. So that if God is indeed angry with us, we implore God to remember that anger is only momentarily useful and that relationships are about a multifaceted communion between one another. So why are they mentioned here? I offer this as an explanation: intimate relationships are built between people who have explored themselves as individuals, and intimacy is created when the Other is able to experience all of the multifaceted individuality in their partner AND themselves. In the fullness of life and relationships, we hurt one another, we get angry, we repent, we forgive, and are hopefully forgiven all while working towards an ever-growing future together. The Israelites left Egypt by the grace and might of God, not of their own merit or volition; they had not yet individuated and thus could not come to God as fully-fledged partners in their relationship. They were led into the desert and then seemingly abandoned by Moshe and God. This moment is where they begin to individuate: left alone with themselves they make the choice to create an idol, a false image of the god that lived in their mind, not the real multifaceted YHWH that exists in relationship with the Israelites. How often do we do that in our relationships? Create an image of our companions in our minds and once that image shifts or is shattered, we are destabilized and grasp at strawmen in hopes it will bring us back to our former state of communion?
But the fact that they invoked the God that took them out of Egypt in their chant revealed that they did not want to turn away from their relationship with God, they were actually seeking that very same God! They were just looking in the wrong place. This does not negate the fact that it was a sin to create and worship the gold calf. We all misstep and “sin” in our relationships and we will continue to do so. The mark of deep intimacy is to be able to recognize your own hurtful behavior, experience your companion’s anger and rage, ask for forgiveness, be forgiven, and come together in deeper union. Once that process is worked through, one can then recognize the multitudes that live within our companions and ourselves.
This is why Moshe proclaims the Yud Gimmel Middot! Because it is in this dance of communion, individuation, repentance, and forgiveness, that deeper bonds of intimacy are formed and the Israelites were able to experience and understand so many more aspects to the God they knew. And in turn, God gained a partner in the Israelites that had grown in maturity. The Israelites were privy to the multitudes that live within God because they had grown and were able to recognize them. It is through this newfound seeing of one another that the Covenant was formed. The Torah was given and received. It was and is an everlasting contract between the Jewish people and God.
If only we felt the Revelation every day, but we mostly walk through life in a state that experiences God’s remoteness, i.e Hester Panim. Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us a balm to address this state of being, “In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time. Teaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase. Those who know that this life of ours takes place in a world that is not all to be explained in human terms; that every moment is a carefully concealed act of His creation, cannot but ask: is there anything wherein His voice is not suppressed? Is there anything wherein His creation is not concealed?” (A.J Heschel, God in Search of Man, 55) If we remember this, that in our human lives, the voice of God is always present yet is only slowly revealed over time, we can soothe our troubled souls when we cannot feel God’s presence—when we feel as if we have been abruptly abandoned as the Israelites had been in the desert of Sinai.
Thank you to Shifra Elman, Jewish Studies Teacher, for this deeply engrossing piece. We are grateful to our faculty for all of their contributions to supporting our community of learners of all ages.