Thursday, 17 Feb 2011

Written by Lisa Barrett

The Still Place in the Middle of the Journey
Exodus 33:12–23

In the dramatic narrative sweep from the golden calf to the carving of two new tablets, Moses finds a still place on the mountain side and encounters God.  This is the still place in the middle of his journey. Joseph Campbell describes the classic journey motif as a call for the hero to make a kind of round trip, crossing dangerous thresholds (monsters, giants, unfriendly supernatural beings) both on the way toward the goal and on the way home.

In Jason and the Argonauts (do you remember that fantastic old movie, where Jason has to fight his way through a field of sword-wielding skeletons?), a Golden Fleece waits at the middle of the journey, a treasure object worth all the dangers and risks the hero undertakes. By contrast, in the Bible narrative of the People of Israel, the Sinai experience waits at the middle of our journey. From slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land, amidst fire and thunder on a lonely mountain, our waiting treasure is the Torah. The dangers along the way take the form of our own inner demons which bring a molten calf leaping forth out of the fiery furnace.

For Moses, whose personal journey parallels that of the entire people, a quiet conversation in the clouds of the mountain lies in the middle of his journey. A dialogue with God where there’s talking, listening, and quiet. In just twelve verses there are ten verbs of saying: (the root amr is used nine times, and dbr once). No fire, no thunder. Just an appeal:

So now, if I have found favour in your eyes, let me know your ways (Exod. 33:13).

And a few verses later:

Pray, let me see your Glory! (Exod. 33:18).

What is Moses asking? He wants to know God’s essence. Some clue to what God is, and the way God works. His whole life’s journey has brought him to this moment, and Moses yearns for clarity. Have all the dangers and risks been worthwhile? Have the sacrifices of life’s journey been worth the price paid so far? Is there assurance of a happy ending,  courage for the challenges still ahead?

And what is God’s response?

You cannot see my face, for no human can see me and live (Exod. 33:20).

God’s goodness will pass before Moses, but as it passes, God will screen Moses with his hand until he has passed by:

Then I will remove my hand; you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen (Exod. 33:23).

How frustrating is that? After all the talking, Moses still doesn’t get what he asks for! No clarity. Just a deepening of the mystery. No answers. Just a tantalising peek, and an unspoken invitation to continue on the road together — God leading the way.

And so it is with all our journeys. The Jewish way is to be always searching, always yearning. The reward is the journey itself, and, if we find favour in God’s eyes, a glimpse of God’s back ahead.

Lisa Barrett
February 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.