Moses’s encounters with God – a podcast interview I did with Reconstructing Judaism
Dr. Elsie Stern’s interview with yours truly
Here’s the intro:
In this Community Learning call from November 21, 2017, Rabbi Maurice Harris talks about the strange way the Torah tells us about Moses’ up-close encounters with God, contradicting itself purposely within the space of nine verses. Two consecutive stories in the Book of Exodus confront us with a crucial paradox about how it is or isn’t possible to encounter the Divine, leaving us as readers with something like an “impossible” mental picture that we may be tempted to try to resolve or to hold as a fruitful paradox. Either way, the mental image these two texts generate beckon us to keep trying to look again and again, despite the endless loop the image generates in our minds.
Just click here or on the image below to give it a listen!
Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shana Tovah to everyone.
One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:14
Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?”
Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations.
I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?Continue reading “Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together”
D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)
D’var Torah T’rumah 5769 – Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
By Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)
Parashat T’rumah details the construction of the mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built and took with them during their 40 year journey through the wilderness. The early rabbis noticed the high frequency of similar words used in this story of the creation of a holy sanctuary and the language used in Genesis to describe the creation of the world.
The portable temple – the mishkan – is the Torah’s early preview of the permanent Temple that would be built centuries later by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Jon Levenson, a Bible scholar and the teacher of my Bible professor, Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski, wrote that the parallels between the Torah’s account of the creation of the universe and the Exodus chapters detailing the creation of the mishkan provide “powerful evidence that, as in many cultures, the Temple was conceived as a microcosm, a miniature world.”
For this week’s Torah portion, the ancient rabbis chose a haftarah, the public reading from the books of the Prophets, that accompanies the weekly Torah reading, from the book of First Kings. That text describes Solomon’s building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most commented upon verses we find in the description of this massive construction project reads as follows:
“When the Temple was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the Temple while it was being built.” [1 Kings 6:7] Continue reading “D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)”
D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.
In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty. You know what happens next. As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'”
And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God.
When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it.
By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.” P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.
Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process! But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”
As we enter into the part of the year in which we read the Exodus story in our synagogues, here’s an excerpt from a chapter from my recent book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, that I hope you’ll enjoy. The book is a terrific resource for clergy of all faiths, especially those looking for good stuff for sermons, and it’s also a really accessible and usable scholarly work on Moses. What follows is part of Chapter 10, “Moses” – the quotation marks are intentional, as in someone making air quotation marks as they say the name Moses.
Since 1985, a group of Christian Bible scholars have worked on what has been known as the Jesus Seminar. Their web site states, “. . . the Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings . . . and events . . . attributed to Jesus in the gospels.”
Even though their work involves questioning the historical accuracy of how the New Testament presents Jesus, many of the Jesus Seminar professors are also Christian pastors invested in a living Christian faith. By closely analyzing the New Testament texts and reviewing other available historical information, these scholars have sought to develop theories about who the actual, historical Jesus may have been, and which sayings and actions attributed to him are most likely to be authentic.
In part, what they seek to do is better understand how their religion evolved in its first two centuries of being. They want to better
understand the various early Christian groups that produced the different gospels, for instance, and how each of them may have shaped or added to the teachings attributed to Jesus over the years.
It’s important to bear in mind that in the ancient world, the common practice was for disciples of a great master to add to his (or occasionally, her) sayings and teachings. When faithful disciples would add to their master’s sayings, they would often attribute the new sayings to him, out of respect and loyalty to the school of thought that he had founded. Disciples and students were not eager to claim personal authorship of new ideas for themselves, nor did they have the need modern Westerners often have for historical accuracy.
When rival groups of disciples of the same master would interpret the master’s life and teachings differently, they would be sure to develop additional sayings in his name that reflected their varying ideological perspectives. In this way, a master’s teachings would sometimes develop over time along different ideological lines, in some cases evolving beyond what the master himself would have condoned or even imagined. This was a practice that was so normal that it was not noteworthy in the ancient world. (The Islamic studies professor, Omid Safi, commenting about similar processes that have played out in Islam, writes: “There might have been one historical Muhammad, but there have been many memories of Muhammad.”) – from his book, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
In Jewish tradition, scholars see the same pattern having played out among the early rabbis. There are many teachings and sayings attributed in the Talmud to great sages like Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, for example. Both men had many disciples and developed popular schools of thought. It is likely that over time, sayings accrued to them that they never actually uttered. Sometimes different groups within a developing religious tradition would join together to consolidate and canonize an official version of their sacred texts. This usually involved discussion and compromise, as the different groups would each want their own texts and traditions included in the canon. In the ancient Middle East, the canonizers of sacred texts were not operating within the framework of modern Western writing, and therefore they were quite comfortable putting multiple and even contradictory written traditions alongside each other as part of the finalized sacred canon.
The canonizers of the New Testament, like the redactors of the Torah that I discussed in chapter 6, were not threatened by presenting their contemporary readers with a Bible designed as a composite text that includes multiple accounts of the same story, complete with contradictions and logical or narrative conflicts. This is why there are four gospels in the New Testament, not just one. The New Testament even presents two gospels that have conflicting genealogies of Jesus’s ancestry (see Matthew and Luke).
As the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar have continued their work, they have offered a new way of looking at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament. They see Jesus as a literary composite figure, a combination of some of his own authentic teachings as well as the varying and sometimes conflicting teachings of others who came after him. Some of these scholars have even started writing about the difference between “Jesus” and Jesus. “Jesus” is the composite literary character we find when we take the entire New Testament as a whole that is made up of many component parts: different writings from different communities with different agendas, writings that were joined together by editors and canonizers. Jesus – without quotes – is the historical person who lived, taught, inspired large numbers of people, and died about 2,000 years ago in Roman occupied Judea.
Needless to say, the written use of “Jesus” as a way of making a distinction that is important to the Jesus Seminar scholars was bound to upset some Christian religious traditionalists. One of the most common criticisms of the Jesus Seminar from some Christian conservatives is that their entire endeavor is heresy. Once they deconstruct traditional Christian belief to the point that Jesus becomes “Jesus,” the conservatives argue, they’ve left the fold. Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, disagree, and don’t see a threat to their tradition through this kind of historical inquiry.
In rabbinical school we were required to take a course on Christianity taught by a local Methodist minister . . . who is also a Jesus Seminar scholar. Rev. Dr. Hal Taussig shared how the research he has done into who the historical Jesus might have been has deepened his appreciation for the best aspects of his religion. In addition to the interest he expressed in discovering which sayings and teachings are most likely to have been authentic to the historical Jesus, Dr. Taussig also has found great value in identifying the sayings that were most likely attributed to Jesus by others during the decades following his death. This information reveals insight into how spiritual life developed in early Christian communities under different circumstances. What Dr. Taussig modeled was a way of relating to one’s own religion with an attitude of excitement and curiosity about what kinds of truth and beauty one might see if one is willing to look behind the curtain of the myth, letting go of dogma and approaching the past with a sense of curiosity and adventure. It’s in this same spirit that I have chosen to write this last chapter not on Moses, but rather on “Moses.”
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D’var Torah: Vayechi
I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.
D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis. It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph. Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim. The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.
You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.
When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt. Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather. Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons. In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.
Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons. Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried. Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela. After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery. They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him. The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.