“What is this thing you are doing to the people?” Jethro asks at the beginning of this parsha, referring to Moses’ attempts to administer to every detail of the community’s functioning himself, without assistance or any alternative authority. Later on, in this same parsha, we find an event which I believe illustrates exactly what Moses had been doing to the people, and to himself. Hard on the heels of this fatherly conversation about community organization and the dangers of stretching oneself too thin, Israel is camped at the foot of Sinai, about to have the single most powerful religious experience in our history, one that will reverberate throughout the life of our people through all time. Instead of simply receiving God’s instructions through a prophet or leader, at Sinai the whole people, together, is having a direct, unmediated encounter with God.
And how do they react to this experience? What’s it like to have a first-hand encounter with God? If the Torah can be trusted on this point the answer is fairly clear: absolutely terrifying.
“Let not God speak to us,” say the people, “lest we die.” Their first instinct in the face of this cosmic experience is to turn away, to retreat back to the way things were. Just as the strangeness and uncertainty of freedom in the wilderness makes them long for the familiar oppression of Egypt, here the terrifying immediacy of a direct contact with God leaves them grasping for something a little more mediated. And Moses, perhaps himself a little uncomfortable with the new, strange world of shared authority introduced by his father-in-law, seems only too willing to fall back into the exhausting but comfortable role of central authority and intermediary. “Don’t worry,” he says, “this has all been a test to make sure you fear God. It’s alright–you passed!” It almost makes you wonder who he’s trying hardest to reassure, the people or himself. But what is the test here, and did they pass?
It seems to me that in turning away as the people did from the awesome, terrifying experience of encountering God face-to-face, delivering the Law amid the “thunder and lighting, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking,” the people are basically trying to avoid a certain kind of responsibility. Not the responsibility to hear, as it might appear at first, but rather the responsibility to speak.
What is the responsibility the people are trying desperately to hand back to Moses? To encounter God, surely, to brave the fiery mountain top. But also, and perhaps just as importantly, to descend, to return to the messy, complicated world of the tents at the base of the mountain and try to communicate that pure, ineffable experience in words comprehensible and relevant to that world–which is, after all, the world in which life has to be lived.
Perhaps in that terrible moment of God’s self-revelation at Sinai the people caught a glimpse of what it means to come face-to-face with the transcendent power at the heart of the world and then be faced with the responsibility of folding that experience, twisting it, shaping it into something that can be not only felt but acted upon, and not in the gleaming light of a perfected world to come, but here and now. Perhaps in that moment they knew all this, and it was simply too much for them, and they were all too willing to leave the burden of that responsibility to Moses, the “man of God” who had led them out of Egypt and who, they were willing to believe, might be uniquely able to go through all that and live. Perhaps in that moment Moses, still not entirely sure how to share that responsibility, is all to willing to take it all back on himself.
If the story had ended there it would have been understandable. It might not have been a good ending, or a comforting one, but we would have understood it because the failings on display here are perfectly, naturally, understandably human. And yet, if it had ended there, would we all be here three thousand years later, gathered together to read these words and reflect on their meaning? It is not surprising that the people reacted in terror to the responsibility that had been thrust upon them and pushed it away. What is surprising, and inspiring, is their subsequent efforts to reclaim that responsibility, to make it their own. It is the story of those efforts that forms a shining thread running throughout Jewish history–through the lives of this generation of former slaves struggling to find their way in the wilderness, the lives of Judges willing to risk death to end slaver and oppression, the lives of Prophets willing to challenge the self-satisfied religious and political establishment of their day in the name of justice and compassion, and in the lives of Rabbis carefully moulding the received tradition into new forms capable of surviving centuries of exile and persecution. The thread that runs through their lives continues to run through our own, and through the lives of every generation that finds the voice to speak in the name of GOd–that is, in the name of the divine challenge to all human systems of injustice. It is this thread that allows us to read the words of this parsha, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die,” not as a prophecy, but as a challenge–the challenge to reclaim, for ourselves, the responsibility to speak.