This is the time of year when I begin to receive phone calls from congregants who ask me to put in a good word for the Ravens, and with a big game coming up this Sunday agains the Steelers I received a number of those calls over the last few days. Generally the calls go something like this: ‘Rabbi, are you going to daven today?’ And I respond ‘yes, I daven every day.’ ‘Well, if you don’t mind, put in a few good words for the Ravens.’
These calls always make me uncomfortable, and the truth is there are a number of problematic assumptions that the caller is making. The first of those is that the caller is presuming I am a Ravens fan, but I am not, I am a Dolphins fan, so if my prayers about the NFL moved God in any way whatsoever the Dolphins would have won at least a Super Bowl or two since 1974, and we’ve seen how that has worked out. But the other problematic assumption is that those callers are implying that I have access to God in a way that other people don’t, that my prayer would carry weight in the Divine throne room in a way that someone else’s prayer would not. And maybe even that I have some kind of special knowledge of God, that I understand God in a way that other people are not able to.
Those phone calls often remind me of the passage we read from the Torah this morning. It is a bit of an odd choice by the Sages, used both for the Shabbats of Hol Hamoed Sukkot and Pesah, probably chosen for this role because it contains a few brief verses about the Pilgrimage Festivals. But when those calls about the Ravens reach me it is the earlier part of the Torah reading that comes to my mind. It is a narrative about what happens between Moses and God, just after the incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf.
The narrative of the Sin itself is well known. To tell it in short form, as it is a busy day this morning in shul: Moses is up on the mountain? 40 days and 40 nights, the people get nervous, Aaron gets even more nervous, together they make an idol in the form of a golden calf, God gets angry, Moses gets angry, the tablets get shattered, God punishes the people. For those of you keeping track that is the entire 35 verses of Exodus chapter 32 presented in 46 words. A little more than one word per verse!
But what is far less familiar is what we read this morning, what at least I find to be a painful conversation between Moses and God, as they try to process everything that has just happened, the sin, the broken tablets, God’s anger, Moses’ anger, everything that has gone wrong. And in the course of that conversation, Moses reaches a low point, a point of despair when he is just about ready to give up the entire project. And at that precise moment, Moses says one thing to God: הראיני נא את כבודך – ‘God,’ Moses says, ‘please show me what you really are, show me Your essence.’
Now remember, Moses is God’s guy. Moses is the one human being God trusts. Moses is the one God tasked with getting the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses is the one God called to the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights. Moses is the one to whom God gave the Torah. And Moses, in a desperate moment, is saying ‘God, give me something! A little extra strength, courage, hope, something!’
And what does God say back to Moses? God says, ‘no!’ לא תוכל לראות את פני כי לא יראני האדם וחי – you may not see My face, my essence, because no person can see my face and live.’
This is a time of year when I suspect a lot of God searching is going on. We’ve just spent hours upon hours sitting in shul on RH and YK, praying, fasting, thinking about our lives, and in the course of all that, probably wondering if God will be there for us in the new year, if God will show us just a little bit, give us a sign, let us know that God is there for us. And I guess what I want to say to you today is that I am searching in the same way that you are. And I have just as much trouble with that search as you. In fact sometimes I might have more trouble. I will let you in on a little secret, just between you and me, please keep it in this room. A rabbi is no different than anyone else. You actually don’t need a rabbi in Judaism to officiate at a funeral or a wedding or an unveiling, or to give a sermon for that matter. You just need a knowledgeable person. A rabbi might know more about certain topics, because a rabbi has probably studied more than you have. But a rabbi is not any more special, or more holy, or for that matter, any closer to God than anyone else.
So when you want to call someone about praying to God for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, you might want to call someone who knows a lot more about football and a lot less about Talmud. Minimally you’ll have the same chances of success. And you never know, what if God asks about player X,Y,or Z? I don’t even know the players names!
I said a moment ago that when Moses asks God for a sign, for a deeper knowledge of God’s ways, God says no. Full confession, that is not entirely true. What God really says is ‘You can’t know me Moses, because no human being can know me. But you can catch a glimpse. Just the merest hint of My Presence.’ The text never tells us what that experience is like for Moses. What he felt, or how much he saw, or what exactly happened. The only thing we know is that whatever Moses got, as little as it might have been, it was enough. And he continued his search, went back up the mountain, and began to carve the second set of tablets.
In many ways I feel like our task is the same. To continue our own searches, and perhaps to see a glimpse – just the faintest hint – of what we are hoping to find. To look for God in the sukkah, or in the daily minyan, or in our interactions with those with whom we share our lives. Or in the golden and red leaves of fall. To walk back up to the top of the mountain, to carve our own tablets, and to every once in a while feel that what we are carving is true. As a rabbi I can’t honestly tell you how to get there, or what you might find at the top. No rabbi can. But I do believe if we make the journey together we will find meaning along the way.
May that be God’s will!