After the Revelation
The Book of Exodus begins with God hidden. Not until the children of Israel are enslaved for some time, and cry out in their suffering, does God hear them. Only then does God’s presence become increasingly manifest as the plagues of Egypt come to their fatal conclusion and afterwards God drowns the Egyptian army in the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites receive their most intense experience of God on Sinai, where, as the Torah relates, they see and hear God. To paraphrase Heschel, what they see and hear is not clear; that they see and hear something, is.
The episode of the golden calf seems to be a painful stain on the Israelite nation. How could they, having so recently experienced God so intensely, have betrayed God so quickly and thoroughly? Yet, in their defense, one might say that demanding the golden calf was an understandable, if misguided, attempt to experience God close at hand once again.
After that, it was as if God had learned that the people needed to be weaned away from a direct, sensory experience of the divine. In this week’s parashah, at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Torah relates that God’s glory was in the form of a cloud that filled the newly—constructed sanctuary. When the cloud rose up, the children of Israel would continue on their journeys. (Exodus 40:34—36) This passage is usually interpreted to mean that the movement of the cloud was a signaling system — a kind of early traffic light, in which the movement of the cloud was a green light. Another way of looking at the phenomenon is that the nation could only move — that is, move forward, in a figurative sense — when God’s presence had lifted. For God to be too close would be an obstacle to progress. Not only that, but God needed to begin to accustom the nation to a time in the future when God’s presence would be scarcely felt.
Nahmanides, in his closing comments on the Book of Exodus, calls it the Book of Redemption. It is the story of the redemption from slavery in Egypt; more than that, it is the beginning of the story of redemption from the need to experience the divine first—hand. Just as children must learn to live without the direct and constant guidance of parents and teachers, so the nation had to learn to follow God’s parenting and teaching without God being seen and heard.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.