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Mystical or Moral? Revelation in the Torah Talk for Shabbat Sukkot 5779


This week we are celebrating the wonderful, outdoor festival of Sukkot, in which we give thanks to God for the harvest and enjoy our zman simchateinu, the season of happiness. Interestingly, Sukkot has many mystical connections in our tradition, including a variety of messianic events that supposedly will take place at this season in times to come. Perhaps for that reason, the Torah portion selected for this Shabbat by the rabbis is from the sedrah of Ki Tisa, and it is a strange, beautiful section, one of the most mystical in the entire Torah.

The part of the parshah prior to our Shabbat Sukkot reading includes the traumatic events of the Golden Calf narrative. In its aftermath, Moses asks God to give him a sign of reassurance. God answers, but does so in an odd and oblique way that teaches something uniquely important about the elusive nature of spirituality.

As we commence our reading Moses asks God to go before the people as they continue their journey towards the Promised Land. God agrees. And then Moses asks Hareini na et-kvodecha, “Please show me Your glory!” In other words, let me see You. Like the errant people who created a calf out of golden earrings and then bowed down to it, Moses needs something more tangible than promises for his own spiritual fulfillment. But he is asking, not pushing…

God’s response is elegant and complex. “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the Name of the Lord, and the grace and compassion I show. But you cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live.” Moses is told to stand on a rock, and God then will place him a cleft in that rock and shield him with God’s own hand from the radiant (radioactive?) Presence as it passes before him. Then God will remove that hand, and show Moses the back of God, “But My face must not be seen.”

In other words, God will allow Moses to sense the Divine Presence, and reveal to him the Divine attributes, the qualities God exemplifies, but even Moses can’t really see God. What Moses will experience is what is behind God, what God leaves behind.

The lesson here is that it is not the visual that is spiritual, but the conceptual. It is not the tangible that captures the essence of God, it is the intrinsic. Spirituality comes from understanding God’s qualities, not from seeing, touching or tasting God. The results of God’s presence, that which God leaves behind, is how we come to truly know God. It is Divine purpose we seek, meaning and morality defined by the very nature of the experience of God.

Immediately after this mystical episode God instructs Moses to carve two new stone tablets, and then reveals to Moses the 13 Divine attributes we still recite regularly in our prayers on this pilgrimage festival of Sukkot: “The Lord God is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness…” A new covenant is created and articulated in detail.

And that covenant, and all Jewish spirituality, is rooted in seeking to discover not God’s face, but God’s purpose.

May we find that purpose on this Sukkot festival of gratitude, and carry it into the weeks, months and years to come.