God’s Back: A Drash for Sukkot

Exod 33:12-34:26
This is one of those holiday Shabbats when a special Torah portion is read.  In ancient times, Succot was THE holiday, of all the festivals this was the most important one.  And if that is so, then one must wonder why, out of the entire chumash, this passage was chosen.  It’s from Exodus, after Moses has come down from his first visit to Sinai, and he’s seen the golden calf, broken the first set of tablets, and then had to deal with a furious God and talk God out of killing everyone. 

So when this portion starts, God and Moses are having relationship troubles.  I’m not exaggerating, that’s just exactly how it reads.  So, God and Moses are in one to one conversation and Moses is saying to God, ‘look you’ve set up all these difficult conditions for what I have to do, you set this gigantic task for the people, and then you tell me how fabulous I am, but you won’t show yourself to me, to the people, to the outsiders we have to pass amongst so they’ll know we’re special.   Sure we talk, and that’s great, but what are you?  Where’s the intimacy?  What is your essence? I haven’t seen you.  I don’t feel like you’re fully sharing yourself with me.’  

So God realizes he’s taken Moses for granted, and suddenly he gets very understanding, he loves Moses, maybe he has been a little withholding, so he promises to be a presence at the Mishkan and when they go out in public, he’ll make himself known amongst foreigners.  Which is great, but Moses wants the personal God, not just the public God. 

So Moses asks to know God’s ways, Moses wants to truly know God.  So God, who is usually very angry, vengeful and jealous and who has just killed a whole lot of idol-worshipping Hebrews, does a 180 and suggest that he show Moses his goodness, yes his goodness, and he will pass God’s goodness in front of Moses and show God’s grace and compassion.  But, Moses can’t look at God’s face, and the full truth of what God is, because all that awesomeness would kill him, so God shows Moses God’s back, which I take as a metaphor for the most tangible part of the most intangible infinite, God’s back is the part of the unimaginable that we can imagine.

Then God sends Moses back up the mountain and Moses fetches the tablets and there’s a bunch of laws and the usual obligations and the covenant between the Hebrews and this God. Etcetera.

So why this portion on Sukkot, on the holiday that is supposed to be the happy follow up to all that breast beating and atonement from Yom Kippur?  On Sukkot, the big ole festival of joy?

I think Moses is saying, you want us to worship you and obey you and make a covenant with you, but for the regular people, you’re too abstract.  They’re tired, they’ve been struggling and walking and they’re still worried about where they came from and where they’re going, and, says Moses, ‘I get to talk to you all the time and even I feel like I’m not seeing the real God, so how do you think the people feel?  You want faith and worship? It’s hard to worship an abstract idea.  The people need something they can grasp, no wonder they built an idol!’

And we read this portion now, after Yom Kippur, because we’re tired, we’ve been struggling with hard truths, maybe even with some shame and heartbreak, and maybe we’ve come out the other end but maybe we have some lingering doubts and worries.  And damn, High Holyday services are long.   The rabbi and the cantor know what’s going on, and some of us have some knowledge, but for many of us it’s a mystery, even a tedious mystery.  Wouldn’t it have been much more pleasant to have a nice shiny golden calf to talk to instead of all these prayers to a supernatural being that many of us don’t even believe in?

Now, as many of you may know, for the last few years I have been writing prayers and kavannot, intentions, which are, for me, among other things, one-sided conversations with a supernatural being I don’t believe in.  So, a while back I had an interesting exchange with Rabbi Lippmann.  I had written a prayer for an occasion, the motzi for Lisa and Molly’s Ordination Shabbat, and it had a lot of blessings for God in the chatima, the concluding line, of each verse and I was having a hard time coming up with a way to talk about God without using pronouns, because I didn’t want to be talking to God like I thought I God was a being with a body who deserved a pronoun like you, or him or her, or he or she or even it, so I was writing lines like 

Bless Adonai Echad, that which unites us that we may be one.

instead of 

Bless Adonai Echad, who unites us that we may be one.  

The rabbi read an early draft of the motzi and commented that she missed the pronouns.  Who was I praying to? I dunno, I said, but not a who.  I guess I’m praying to an idea, a concept of unity and connection and one-ness, maybe.  I have such a hard time praying to a being.  The rabbi said she had a hard time praying to a concept. 

She had a point, and I have been struggling with that.   I write prayer.  With who or what am I in holy conversation? It’s hard.  I mean, doesn’t it just make you want to go out and build a Golden Calf?

My current solution to this dilemma is to pray to God’s back, to what’s there when I’m not looking directly at whatever God is.  I can only see what God does, God is the verb to be, god is a gerund, a verb ending in ‘ing‘, always doing and being, never starting, never done.  

Bless Adonai Echad, uniting us that we may be one.

Speaking of gerunds, I’m watching what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street, I think everyone who observed Kol Nidre in Zuccotti Park, is praying, in their own way, to God’s back.  They are in the middle of gerund, believing and acting and caring, finding their true selves in conscious living and social action, in tefillah and tzedukah and teshuva, in full connection with that Verb, To Be, whether they call it God or not, regardless of the outcome.   They yearn for the goodness to pass over them, they want it to be tangible and they believe it can be, and I think they’re seeing it, I think they’re imagining the unimaginable. From their lips to God’s ears.

Again, why do we read this during Sukkot? 

I’m not sure, but maybe when you sit in the sukkah, and you look around at the walls that maybe you built yourself, maybe you can imagine that they are there to remind you of the need for humans to construct descriptions and meaning, golden calves, to help them make it through their lives, which is okay I think. 

And then, maybe, as you sit in the sukkah within these tangible walls, you look up and you can see through to the stars and you can’t help but be reminded how vast and incomprehensible this universe is.  And maybe here you can be joyful, you can understand what all the atonement was about and experience the joy of forgiveness and new beginnings. 

So maybe, when you sit in the sukkah, contemplating God’s back within the walls of the tangible and under the stars of the unimaginable, you will let God be a gerund, that verb ending in ING, never started, never over, always now. 

And may God’s goodness pass over you.

Hag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom.
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