How to move beyond the fear of God
This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.
I struggle with the Sinai story. I understand what it is trying to do: give a powerful sense of the fearsomeness of the human-God encounter. This story is one of Jewish tradition’s root metaphors, yet understanding it as one characterized by fear feels like it has outlived its usefulness.
In parshat Yitro, God tells Moses to erect barriers between the people and the mountain; anyone who touches the mountain will surely die (Exodus. 19:12). Later, God warns Moses against the people approaching, lest God “break out” among them, as though God is not in control (Exodus 19:24).
Then there is the scene of God’s actual “coming down” on Mount Sinai: the intense shaking of the mountain, the thick cloud covering it, the smoke, the lightning, the sound of a shofar growing louder and louder, the people’s synesthesia as they “see” the thunder. The Torah uses the same verb (charad) to describe the mountain’s quaking and the people’s trembling during their experience. The people are afraid — they don’t want to approach and they say to Moses, “You speak with us and we will listen, but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:16).
The Sinai experience is clearly intended to portray the human-Divine encounter as governed by fear at least as much as awe.
I’m not saying we should cut out or forget this seminal story from the Torah. I am simply giving voice to the struggle I had as I closely read the Sinai narrative this year. As I probed that discomfort deeper, I found a longing to honor this story, but not to inhabit it.
The reason is that while I understand that our ancestors understood God as a dangerous, fear-inducing power, that is not how I, or I think most of us, live our theological lives. When I am trying to teach others about the possibility of connecting to God or recognizing the Divine Presence, all the fear-inducing God imagery really gets in the way.
A more helpful and inspiring way for me to understand the human-Divine interface comes from the Tanya, the core text of Chabad Chasidism:
“Every soul from the House of Israel contains the quality of Moses, one of the seven shepherds who draws down Divine vitality and Godliness for all the souls of Israel. Moses includes all those shepherds, so he [in particular] is called the faithful shepherd, as he draws down the quality of awareness of God for all of Israel, so that they may know God, each one, according to their soul’s capacity. [They are] nurtured from the root of the soul of Moses, which is rooted in the highest level of God awareness” (Tanya, 42).
This mystical teaching from the Tanya offers us the insight that we each have an inner Moses, a capacity within the depths of our being to draw down higher awareness and intuition. The Moses capacity calls us to listen on a much deeper level.
If we then reread the Sinai story, we can understand Moses and the people not as two entities, but as two capacities within each of us. Sometimes we are in our “people” capacity — we need barriers and we are afraid to go deeper. And yet we can also tap into our own Moses capacity, that quality that can mediate between the “people” and that which is beyond, that can help us grow in our knowledge of the ultimate.
Josh Jacobs-Velde is the co-rabbi of Oseh Shalom in Laurel.
Our Ancestors, First Fruits, and Us by Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde
This parsha (Ki Tavo) starts out describing the ritual of offering bikkurim, first fruits. I’d like to quote it at length. By the way, I use the word YHVH (the four letters of the unpronounceable Divine Name) interchangeably when I’m quoting the Torah with “Adonai,” replacing what is conventionally translated as “the Lord.”
Deuteronomy, chapter 26
1 When you enter the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that YHVH your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where YHVH your God will choose to establish the Holy Name. 3 You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before Adonai your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to assign us.”
4 The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of YHVH your God.
5 You shall then recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to YHVH, the God of our ancestors, and YHVH heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
8 Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Adonai, have given me.”
You shall leave it before the YHVH your God and bow low before YHVH your God. 11 And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you and your household.
I think it’s a beautiful ceremony; it has a whole choreography; it summarizes Jewish historical experience. It’s very direct and simple—you offer your first fruits, the fruits of your labor, on the altar before the Holy One. I could see some kind of similar ceremony taking place for hundreds of years, for example, in the Zuni Pueblo in the Southwest. By the way, there are a lot of parallels in Judaism with Native American practice, and I think it can bring an important perspective we don’t often consider to highlight them.
So, we see here how a ritual structure was set up to enable our ancestors to have a profound and close relationship with the land.
Now, if you look in any book of halacha/Jewish practice, they’ll say something like, “This ritual around bikkurim only applies to fruit grown in Israel, at the time that the Temple stood.” So it is just relegated to the past.
But here’s something incredibly important, something you’ll hear me say in multiple ways in the coming months. The Torah is deeply concerned with the people’s relationship to the land. You can argue even that this relationship is the Torah’s central concern. As, Reconstructionists, we are concerned with how Judaism has evolved and, perhaps even more importantly, how Judaism needs to continue to evolve.
And part of that evolution, I believe, is to extend our sense of relationship and connection to the land beyond the land of Israel (as important as that may be) to the land that supports our life here, where we live. So many of us desire meaningful connection with the land surrounding us—witness the meteoric rise of the local food movement—and I believe we can look to the Torah for inspiration in this regard.
How many of us are gardeners? Actually, all of us here tonight have access to very local produce—earlier today I just had some of the delicious Concord grapes growing on the vine just outside by the Oseh driveway. I invite you to pick a few—just wait till after Shabbat.
So you can imagine, when we bring the first fruits of our gardens to our dining room tables, if we allow ourselves, we can feel an echo in our action with this first fruits ritual of our ancestors. No, we are probably not going to make an altar and say this formal declaration, but the Divine power is present in the unfolding process that culminates in a cucumber just as much for us as for our ancestors.
Further, when we eat, we acknowledge the incredible Divine processes that bring food into being when we say a bracha. This too is a kind of continuation of the first fruits ceremony—that moment of acknowledgement, of noting a blessing by saying a blessing.
When we gather our first fruits, whether harvested from our own gardens or a local farm, we take tap into those same simple, nourishing feelings of gratitude to the Source of All as we partake of the bounty of the land, feeling ourselves part of that flow of blessing which stretches from the ancient past to this very moment.