The Israelites sit at the foothills of Mount Sinai. Moses, their leader, the person who promised them freedom and the Presence of God, has disappeared. And they’re afraid. They retreat, regress, to old patterns – demanding something to worship. Aaron responds to their demands by collecting their gold and melting it into something familiar: a golden animal that they can worship. Aaron declares a feast, and the people make music and eat and dance. They are comforted – until Moses returns from the mountain.
Moses has been communing with God for forty days and forty nights. At the end of that time, God gives Moses a gift: “the two tablets of the Covenant inscribed with the very finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). God then tells Moses to hurry down to the people because they are worshipping the golden calf. God is angry, calling the Israelites “your people,” rather than “My people” or “our people.” God’s anger builds. God tells Moses to leave God be so that God’s anger can destroy the Israelites, and God can build a new Covenant with Moses and his descendants (Exodus 32:7-10). God’s anger is becoming rage. And Moses is undoubtedly afraid – afraid of anger, and afraid of the destruction of his people for whom he cares deeply and to whom he has dedicated his life.
In the past, especially at the Burning Bush, Moses’s fear caused him to withdraw: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). And later: “What if they don’t believe me and do not listen to me, but say: Adonai did not appear to you?” (Exodus 4:1). Even now, Moses’s fear is still present. But now he responds to it differently. Now, he pleads with God: “Do not let Your anger, O Adonai, blaze forth against Your people” (Exodus 32:11). Moses challenges God. At a time when he could run, or hide, or say to himself, God will destroy everyone else, but I’ll be fine, Moses instead calls on God to be merciful for everyone’s sake. In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbahu describes Moses as grabbing God by the collar, as a person would do a friend, and saying to God: I will not leave You be until You forgive and pardon them (Berakhot 32b). Moses’s fear does not limit him to old patterns. It charges him to draw closer to God, as a person would a friend. Moses says to God: I am afraid; I think You are too, and I am with You. You are too important to abandon to Your anger.
God hears Moses’s plea and restrains Godself from destroying the people. And when the incident is over, when Moses has broken the first set of tablets and the golden calf is destroyed, Moses says to God: “Oh, let me behold Your Divine Presence!” (Exodus 33:18). Moses responds to his fear by drawing near: Let me see You. I want to know You.
The Israelites respond to their fear with old patterns, old idolatries. Moses responds to fear by drawing nearer to God.
We are so often confronted with our fears in recovery and in life: What if so-and-so whom I have harmed never forgives me? What if I am unlovable? What if someone I care about rejects me or abandons me and I’m on my own? What if no one actually cares about me? And these isolating questions pulse louder in social distancing, self-isolations, and quarantines of the Coronavirus.
There’s a powerful temptation to return to old patterns, to avoid, to hide, to use, to push people away. These patterns are comfortable. They are our golden calves, our idolatry. But Moses shows us another way: draw near. Say to someone, or even to say to yourself: I am with you. I want to know you.
Harriet has taught us that there’s a profound difference between desire and commitment. Desperation may evoke desire, may get us into recovery. But what keeps us here? Intimacy. The promise, the experience of connection. Not connection with some vague reference to the idea of a community, not connection with someone so I can use them to get what I want, but the intimacy of knowing someone and being known by someone. The intimacy of a homie who can hold you down when you want to go out; of a child, a parent, a partner who says I don’t understand but I’m willing to stay for now. The intimacy of someone who knows you – all of you – and loves you anyway.
When you’re afraid, draw near. Right now, in this moment of the novel Coronavirus, you may not be able to draw near in person. You may not be able to give or receive the hug or attend the meeting that you otherwise would. But physicality is not the only intimacy. Get creative with your connection. It may be through social media, phone calls, FaceTime, or prayer. Take an online class. LiveStream Beit T’Shuvah’s Friday night services not only to listen and watch, but to chat with other recovery-minded people also living that shabbat-life – this week on their couches with a hot cup of tea.
Connect. Show yourself. Draw near. You’re too important – we’re too important – to hide.