The middle third of the parashah on this Shabbat, Ki Tisa, begins with Moshe on Mt Sinai receiving the Word of G-d in the form of “tablets of testimony written with the finger of G-d.” (Exodus 31.18) At the same time the Israelites, who are waiting below in the valley, become restive. What’s taking so long?
For the literally mind-blown Moshe, time had ceased to exist. According to one midrash, for forty days he neither ate nor drank, but simply existed, basking in the Divine Presence. It is the first example in Jewish tradition of a state of being which is now called a mystical experience. Moshe was no longer of this world; as the Israeli Nobel laureate in literature Shai Agnon put it in his story HaSiman, “The Sign”, in words informed by the language of the Zohar, the primary text of Jewish mystical expression:
“Thought on thought was engraved, holy thought within my thought. And all the communicated words were etched in letters, and the letters joined into words, and the words formed what was to be said….My flesh crawled and my heart melted and I was annihilated from being and I was as if I were not.” (Agnon, HaSiman, cited by Rachel Elior in Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom, p. 16)
Down below in the valley of the shadow of doubt, the Israelites were having no such peak experience. The leader who was their emotional anchor had asked them to wait for him, and in their anxiety, the time cannot pass quickly enough. They are looking for leadership; they are nervous about the lack of communication; in short, they are not feeling serene and trusting. As the Torah relates, G-d was aware of this and the awareness communicated itself to Moshe, who hastened down the mountain to respond.
When Moshe returned, things had gotten a bit out of hand, but that’s been well-described and analyzed elsewhere by many; I want to concentrate for a moment on the day of his return. “You said you’d be back yesterday!” said the people who loved him, who had waited for him, and who had quickly turned on him when they felt let down. “No, I said I’d be back on the fortieth day,” said the leader. “I’m back right when I said I would be!”
The waiting Israelites cannot relate to the fact that Moshe was having a fantastic experience; they only know that he was not there for them, and they are in pain.
Both felt let down; both experienced a sense of being misunderstood, of being lied to, of being betrayed. And both sides, each in their way, were right.
Here are several chasms: between mystical experience and the everyday, between leader and follower, between the one leaving and the one waiting to be returned to. It is so easy to get caught up in one’s own experience – which is, after all, paramount by definition – and so difficult to remain aware of those others who are waiting for word. But it is necessary to do so if one would move in the world ethically. Note the description of being close to G-d: “I was as if I were not.” That does not mean that one who is close to G-d ceases to exist; just that one who is close to G-d ceases to be blinded by the ego, the “I”, and is given a new ability to see, and take note of the reality of others.
There is a wonderful midrash about staying aware of the feelings of the other:
Once upon a time Rabbi Preda was teaching a student when he was told that he was going to be needed for a mitzvah related to tzedakah.
Rabbi Preda taught the student as usual, but on this day the student could not grasp the material as usual.
He asked, “what is the matter?”
The student answered, “from the moment they said to you there is a mitzvah to be done,
I could not concentrate because I thought, ‘now he will have to go. Now he will have to go.’
Rabbi Preda reviewed the material to the student four hundred times.
A Voice from Heaven was heard to ask, “Would you prefer to have four hundred years added to your life,
or that you and your entire generation be assured life in the World to Come?”
“May my generation be given life in the World to Come”, Rabbi Preda answered.
The holy Voice was heard to say, “give him both rewards.” (BT Eruvim 54b)
The essence of Jewish ethics is to be able to put ourselves in the place of others; to empathize with them, not to judge them in their vulnerability. May we be humble enough to be alert to those who are waiting for a word from us, distracted by anxiety and afraid of betrayal, and may we recognize our own needs for reassurance in theirs.