Got Me Thinking…

how life can teach us about life

Similar Solutions: How the saga of Sinai got me thinking about solving Jewish problems

Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes (erm, sandals) of an ancient Israelite. You are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. The thunder is blaring, the lightning is torching the sky, there is mist and fog and special effects. A voice booms down from high upon the mountain. You can’t see who or what is making the voice, and, as you’ve been told, that’s the point. That voice brought you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. It is now telling you a bunch of rules and laws, and you have no idea what (he? she? it?) looks like. Back in Egypt there were idols, many gods, with names and faces and shrines. Now, there’s a voice and trumpets and thunder and lightning and you’ve had enough. You just can’t deal, and neither can the rest of your fellow Israelites. So you send Moses, your fearless leader, up the mountain, to deal with the floating voice, while you get to chill at the bottom of the mountain, contemplating what in God’s name that voice looks like. It’s gotta look like something, after all. (or at least have a shrine to live in). 

So Moses heads up Sinai, and for the next few chapters God blabbers on about the mishkan, the tabernacle that the Israelites will build for God. But why deal with blueprints now? Why drone on about architecture? Perhaps the mishkan comes first because it is necessary. God just saw how the people reacted to God’s voice. It’s as if God is saying to Moses, “Okay, so I guess the big booming voice scared them. They’re having a hard time with the whole ‘incorporeal-God-thing’. I understand; they haven’t known Me very long. So how about this- why don’t you build Me a house down there. It’ll be like a shrine; they get that. They still won’t be able to see Me, but perhaps it’ll be easier for them to to feel Me. They’ll bring sacrifices, worship, and form community, and I will dwell among them. That should be a bit easier.” So Moses jots down the building notes for the tabernacle, a solution to dealing with a God without a place. 

Now you, Mister or Misses Israelite, have no idea this is going on. You are still at the foot of the mountain, twiddling your thumbs, playing sheish-beish with you camel, and you are getting worried. That God figure scared you out of your mind, but you still want to do something for It (or He or She). God did take you out of Egypt, after all. But Moses isn’t here to interpret, or tell you what to do. So you say to your fellow desert-dwellers, “Here’s an idea: So we’re having a hard time with this whole ‘incorporeal-God’ thing. Why don’t we make some sort of image to represent God? It won’t be God, God is up the mountain. But then at least it will be less difficult to pray and praise God. It’ll be like an idol; we get that. We’ll have something to focus our energy on. That should be a bit easier.” A good solution to a God without a face. So you get the gang together, Aaron throws your gold in the fire, out comes the calf, and you make a celebration. And then Moses has to go and ruin the party by smashing the tablets and yelling. Typical.

What strikes me about the story is that neither party, Moses and God or Aaron and the Israelites, realize they were working on two sides of the same challenge. An incorporeal God is both a God you can’t see and a God you can’t visit. The mishkan gives God a space, while the golden calf gives God a face. This story to me, then, is about the breakdown of communication; two groups working in isolation, on an problem they probably think is unique to them. When Moses comes down the mountain, he doesn’t see a proposed solution, he sees a defiance of rules. He can’t recognize that what he’s seeing is an answer to the same question he and God have been working on for forty days high on the mountain. They just didn’t come to the same conclusion. 

This past weekend I was at Limmud New York for the first time. At the Friday night tisch, I worked up the courage to give this drash. But I only had the first half worked out. Looking around the room at Jewish lay-people, professionals, Rabbis, educators, and innovators, I knew what the lesson was. So I said: The Jewish world is filled with circles that rarely overlap. There’s the educator circle, the artist circle, the young-cool-and-hip circle, the innovator circle, the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, and Renewal circles, and so many more. Each of these circles is trying to solve the problems facing the Jewish community, and each are working on their own. Perhaps another circle is coming up with a great solution, a great new program, a new innovation. But one is up the mountain and one is below; there is no communication. Limmud is one of the rare cases where Jews from all the circles are put in a building together, to pray, eat, learn, and schmooze together. What an incredible opportunity. What I told the Limmudniks, and what I tell you now, is this: Talk to each other. Work together. Cross into a different circle, and let someone from another circle into yours. You are probably working on the same challenge, and we would be a much stronger Jewish community if we faced those challenges together. (but please, don’t build a calf made of gold. We don’t want to go through that again.) 

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