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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach - Belief in Crisis

This week we take a step away from our yearly, chronological journey through the Torah. We are in the midst of the period we call chol hamoed, which translates to the mundane days of the festival - the intermediate days between the Passover seder and the seventh day which is marked by another holiday. We distinguish these days in several ways: extra blessings are added in daily prayer, four people are called to the Torah rather than three on days we read, in the days of the Temple an extra sacrifice was added. Another of these changes is that we read a special portion from the Torah that corresponds with the content and the spirit of the holiday. 

This Shabbat we read the story of the second time Moses is called by God to ascend Mount Sinai. In the background to this story the Israelites are in a moment of national crisis. The saga of the golden calf is still fresh in their memories, as is the fallout of the punishment meted out by Moses. Even though it has been made clear that God’s expectation that the Israelites will worship God and God alone, it is clear that many Isralites are extremely skeptical about their new reality. They question Moses, they question if freedom is truly a gift, they question God. 

Simultaneously, Moses finds himself in a moment of personal crisis. His leadership has been called into question by those he is meant to lead. He turns to God, full of doubt about his future and his nation's future. Moses addresses God and says, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’ Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.” (Exodus 33:12-13)

We can understand from the way Moses addresses God in this moment that he, too, has been deeply shaken by recent events. He recognizes that God has chosen him for his role, yet that chosenness does not assure him as it did through the days of the Exodus. Always a bit unsure why God chose him to lead the Israelites to freedom, Moses turns to God and asks for reassurance. He seeks comfort and support in a moment where he feels entirely alone. 

What Moses asks is for a sign, some proof that God is with him even as things seem to be falling apart. As he seeks comfort he calls out to God, “hareini-na et k’vodecha - oh, let me behold your presence.” (Exodus 33:18) He asks to see God, to come face to face with the creator of all things. The Rashbam (a rabbi who lived and worked in 12th century France) responds in surprise to Moses’ request writing, “at first glance we must surely wonder how Moses could have had the audacity to demand to see God and to ask for such a means to derive personal satisfaction from it. It is totally incompatible with the attitude Moses displayed at the burning bush when the very thought of seeing something Divine filled him with fear and he was afraid to look.” 

Indeed, it does seem like a moment of deep chutzpah from Moses to ask from God- who has made clear that the Creator has no physical or material form- to show itself “in person”. It speaks, in my mind, to the desperation he feels in this particular moment, his need to be reassured that he is on the right path. 

The Rashbam continues and explains that, “there can be no question but that what motivated Moses to formulate the above request was only that God would fulfill his two wishes, 1) to distinguish him individually, and 2) to personally travel with the people.” 

Friends, I can share that I, and perhaps many of you, find myself in a crisis similar to what Moses faced, a crisis of belief, of faith, of where our path leads from here. Passover is typically a time for celebration, rest, and renewal. Yet, this year, it is hard to feel the joy of celebrating our freedom from Egyptian bondage. After just a quick survey of the day’s headlines, it is hard to walk away with a great deal of confidence about the Jewish future, in Israel or in the United States. A good friend who lives in Nashville reached out this week and summed it up rather well, writing, “feeling hopeless”.

These are the moments in which I most need to feel God’s presence in my life. There are times where I manage it but, paradoxically, moments of crisis in which I most need God are so often those in which the divine presence feels farthest away. Like Moses, I so badly want to feel individually distinguished and that God is personally by my side. How comforting it would be to be able to climb a mountain and plead before God to give us a sign, some proof that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is there, listening, committed to us and our People. 

Yet, I recognize that my desire for this divine clarity is a symptom of my own chutzpah. Our tradition reminds us on many occasions that to us human beings, the divine is simply ineffable. In another beautiful exposition of the same verse from Exodus, in which Moses asks God to reveal His presence, the rabbis discuss the very nature of God writing:

[The verse is meant] to teach you [that] the Holy One, blessed be He - may His name be blessed - sometimes appears and sometimes does not appear; sometimes hears and sometimes does not want to hear; sometimes answers and sometimes does not answer; sometimes is pursued and sometimes is not pursued; sometimes is found and sometimes is not found; sometimes is close and sometimes is not close.

Our tradition teaches that very often the divine does not reveal itself in the way that we hope or may want it to. God is all things and their opposite, all at once. The divine exists in a way that we cannot understand, really cannot even begin to fathom. While we hope and want for God to be near us, we cannot know, at any given moment, if this is the case. 

But we can continue to call out for the divine presence, to want God to come close to us and to aspire to approach the divine. Perhaps this is the reason that we read this particular piece of Torah during the Passover festival. Once we have marked our people’s freedom, the text reminds us that now the real work begins. As free people, we have a responsibility and a duty to maximize this freedom, to use it with caution and maturity. We are tasked to call out to the divine presence and bring it closer to us as we simultaneously try to approach it every single day. Even though we may not hear or see a response, even though we will never be able to ascend to the divine, as Jews this is what we are asked to do: to constantly grow, to acquire knowledge, to strengthen our faith, to become the most ascendent versions of ourselves, as individuals and as a nation, that we can be. 

Wishing you the ability to find joy during a fraught festival of freedom. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

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