Rabbi Jen Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time (Penguin), whose works and commentary also have been featured in Newsweek, the New York Times, Jewish Woman, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She teaches and lectures across North America, and serves as the High Holidays rabbi at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. She can be reached at email@example.com
If ever there were a time when we could use a glimpse of the future, it’s now. What’s going to happen to us? When will this period of hardship end? How will we come through on the other side?
Even Warren Buffett, the trusted fiscal soothsayer, admitted we were in the “worst freefall” he had ever seen in a recent letter to his shareholders, the details of which happened to coincide with the start of a week when the Dow and S&P reached lows it hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Nonetheless, Buffett maintained that our economic system “has unleashed human potential as no other system has, and it will continue to do so.” Even the “Oracle of Omaha” cannot know for certain what the future holds, but he’s not turning away from the carnage, and continues to risk with the certain awareness that we’ll rise again.
Sometimes even prophets—n’vi’im, or “seers”—turn away. After all, they’re only human. Moses, the prophet par excellence, did in his early days. When he saw the burning bush remain aflame without being reduced to even a single ashy wisp, he turned aside. In the same awesome moment when God called out to Moses, he took cover, afraid to gaze upon the Divine Presence. A midrash teaches us that in that first encounter, God would have granted Moses the unparalleled ability to see everything; that God would have revealed all that was above and below the earth, would have enabled him even to scan the past and gaze upon the future. Yet Moses hid his face, and the moment for seeing what lay ahead passed.
Not so in this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, a portion in which Moses and the People Israel wrestle with the anxiety of not knowing the future, a portion in which everyone from the Prophet to the average man on the street (or, in this case, the desert sand) wants guarantees for what’s to come. They’ve forgotten how to risk.
While Moses sits in a mountaintop stone-carving session with God, the Israelites grow increasingly edgy and downright dubious as to their leader’s return. Their fear turns into panic, and their panic turns into the ill-fated project of constructing the golden calf—a makeshift god into whose face they can stare to avoid staring uncertainty in the face, instead. Their arts and crafts endeavor ends up smashed to smithereens, ground into a stupidity smoothie by Moses himself upon his return and served to the community for cocktail hour. The first version of the tablets of the law, too, are in pieces on the ground—a symbol of Moses’ fury at the Israelites’ inability to sit tight and believe all will be well.
Yet Moses doesn’t fare much better than his charges in that regard. He, too, wants guarantees, and has little stomach for a future he neither can see nor control. As such, he uses his special access to the Holy One, pleading with God to let him know God’s ways, to allow him a look at God’s Presence; as if to say, “Lord, if you think I’ve done a good job, show me that I’ll be rewarded somewhere down the road. Show me that all of this tsurres will yield peace in the end.”
This time, though, Moses’ shot at a real glimpse at the future is a non-starter. According to that same midrash, because Moses hid his face in his first moment of encounter with God, he forfeited his opportunity to see ahead the way only God can see forever. Gazing upon God at the burning bush would have been a real risk without the benefit of knowing whether God was there to punish or reward him, to admonish or befriend him—without the benefit of knowing what would happen if he didn’t hide at all. Yet asking for guarantees now, in the context of his special relationship with the Divine, after so many intimate chats, after talking one another down from many a temper tantrum—not quite as risky.
Nevertheless God understands that Moses needs a little extra support, and partially agrees to the request, placing him in a cradle of a rock where he will be safe from God’s immeasurable power, a force too great for any human to experience without some form of mediation. It’s as if God says to Moses, “You can come and be near Me in the place where we normally have our talks, but not really with Me because what you’ll experience isn’t even the half of Me. This time, though, I’m going to let you have a glimpse of something. And from that place you will see what you will see. But at the end of the day, Moshe, you’ll never be able to see what I can. You will always have to live without being able to tell the future. You will, the People Israel will, and so will all of humanity. Because you are you, and I am God.”
No matter how hard we try, we can never truly know what’s coming. Even prophets have their limitations. But we keep living in the meantime, hoping, trying to reach a moment in our own lives when we see the burning bush and we don’t turn away, when we hear an unknown voice calling us to action and we do not hide, when we endure a torturous waiting period and do not allow panic to eclipse the great potential that we believe with perfect faith—even through imperfect days—surely will come; when we, like Esther, enter the king’s inner chamber without being summoned and risk it all without a clue as to whether we’ll emerge with our lives, let alone with our life-saving work accomplished.
This has been the People Israel’s struggle, this was our Prophet Moshe’s struggle, and this is our struggle: to risk without guarantees, to plan for, believe in, and build a brighter future even when the complete view of the future has been obscured from our vision. This is our struggle and our opportunity. Now, more than ever.