RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me two tablets of stone, even the tablets of the covenant. And the Lord said unto me: ‘Arise, go down quickly form here, for your people that you have brought out of Egypt have dealt corruptly. They have quickly turned aside out of the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten image.’ And the Lord spoke unto me, saying: ‘I have seen this people and behold it is a stiff-necked people. Let Me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under the heaven: And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’(Deut. 9:11-14).
The rapid spiritual deterioration of the Children of Israel is astonishing. Just forty days earlier they had participated in an unprecedented direct encounter with God. Never before had so many people simultaneously heard the Divine’s voice. We know that they were profoundly moved by their collective epiphany because they expressed their unconditional commitment to the divine imperative: ‘All that the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall obey.’ (Ex. 24:7). But, despairing of the return of Moses who had ascended the mountain not forty days earlier, they fashioned and worshipped a substitute deity. What had happened? How can we account for the incredible erosion of faith in a people who had experienced the hand of God in so many ways?
It seems to me that the conclusion of the narrative of the revelation at Sinai provides the clue to this incredible spiritual deterioration:
And all the people saw the thunderings and the lightenings, and the voice of the shofar, and the mountain billowing smoke. And when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off [va-ya’amdu me-rachok]. And they said unto Moses: ‘You speak with us and we will hear; but let God not speak with us lest we die.’ And Moses said unto the people: ‘Do not be afraid, because God has come to test you, so that reverence for Him will be upon your faces, that you sin not.’ And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness [arafel] where God was. (Ex. 20: 15-18).
The Israelite masses were overwhelmed by their encounter. The entire natural order had been suspended. The mountain trembled. Smoke encompassed them. Their sensations coalesced, sounds and sights merging, and an awesome superhuman voice roaring all around them, demanding their fealty.
For three days they had been warned to keep their distance and forbidden to ascend the holy mountain. But now, the mountain had ceased to tremble. Normalcy had returned, and Moses had invited them to join him as he climbed the mountain to encounter God at first hand.
Their experience had simply been too overwhelming. The awesome encounter had been too traumatic. They were in terror of the divine might. Before them they saw a thick cloud, an impenetrable barrier to the Divine. So they stood afar off and asked Moses to enter the darkness alone. It would suffice for them to hear God’s word at second hand from Moses. They would be satisfied with a vicarious experience of the Divine.
The perceived impenetrable barrier separating ordinary humans from God was the reason for Israel’s rapid loss of faith. Their preparedness to have Moses encounter God for them was to have tragic consequences. It is true that impressionist art needs distance to take form and to make sense. Closely viewed, the canvas is a splotch of meaningless, confusing shapes and colors that can only be appreciated as a glorious creation at a distance. But art does not resemble religious life experience. One can no more experience the Divine through another person’s eyes and ears than one can read a story with another person’s eyeglasses. Seen in this way, the words are distorted, the letters blurred and the meaning obscured. Experiencing God at a distance is like kissing one’s beloved through a thick veil. The contact is neither intimate nor authentic-- and yet this is what the Children of Israel chose to do.
Distance alone does not account for Israel’s loss of faith. Their perception of the impenetrable darkness does. The arafel [thick black cloud] was, after all, an optical illusion. Have you ever flown into a thick bank of dark cloud? From a distance it seems substantive and impenetrable. However, when the plane enters the dark bank of clouds, the darkness transforms into little wisps of insubstantial vapor, allowing passage as easily as a hot knife into soft butter.
Moses alone saw the obstacle as an illusion, and entered the cloud to encounter God.
The Children of Israel were stuck behind an imagined impenetrable barrier. They did what so many of us so often do. We perceive obstacles to growth and progress, and permit ourselves to remain stuck in imagined helplessness and hopelessness.
A story from my clinical files will explain what I mean. A very talented young artist came to my office for help following a severe psychotic break. She had responded well to her prescribed medications but was struggling to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. There were just too many overwhelming obstacles. Her memories of the frightening break had become recurring nightmares. How could she be certain that any recovery she might make would not be shattered by another break and new terrors? I used many standard therapeutic strategies to help overcome her fear, but the obstacles remained until I shared Israel’s reaction to the thick cloud. It was an ah ha moment for her. The obstacles were an illusion. She was ready to enter the arafel and begin to ascend the mountain.
I have met many people who are stuck behind obstacles of their own imagining. Some barriers reflect their paralyzing disempowerment. Others are the creations of childhood experiences long past or of self-images severely damaged. The truth is that we remain stuck behind the figments of our imaginations and the phantoms of our fears. The result is that we are observers of life and not its participants.
The life-altering truth is that, like Moses, we can enter the arafel and watch it dissipate as we engage life directly.