Chol HaMoed by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot: Watching Moses from Afar
by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
 
I was there through it all. My name is Safkan ben Mesorah, eighteen rains old, and I belong to the Tribe of Benjamin. Poppa always told me, “Be proud of your tribe, Son. We are small, but powerful. And we were God’s favorite, once, in Grandpa Jacob’s day. Kings will come out of Benjamin!”
 
Of course, I believed him—he was my father, after all—but I did not believe that even a Royal Steward, much less a king, would ever emerge from our humble tribe. We were destined to be shepherds: always last in the Marching Order, last to receive the Manna, the Heavenly Bread, and encamped farthest away from Mt. Sinai, where the Old One, Moses, was to receive the Word of God.

 

Only, Receiving the Law didn’t happen the way we all believed it would. We had heardthat the Old One would climb the little mountain to meet his God. Why, indeed, did He-Who-Is choose that sad little pile of rocks and rubble on which to give His ultimate Law? Why not Mt. Nebo, or Moriah, far more majestic summits?
 
Moses began his lonely climb. In the Old One’s absence, his brother Aaron—even older than Moses!—was in charge. Aaron might have had us singor dance before God’s Mountain; anything to use up energy (We had just consumed a mighty bowl of manna, each), but he did nothing. He only stared upward at the clouds, thunder and lightning into which his Leader-Brother had vanished. He ignored us completely—that was not good.
 
The hours went by, and days. No Moses. Aaron continued his gazing at the mountain-top. But then, a voice rang out from the crowd:
 
“Son of Amram! You there, you Priest—you, Holy Man! Where is your errant brother?”
 
Aaron said nothing. Someone tossed a rock at his feet. Then, he turned, angrily—angrier than I have ever seen Aaron, before or since. He was always a patient man.
 
“Who throws a stone at the Anointed One of God, at God’s High Priest?” he hissed.

 

“Make us a god, you who are called a Priest!” called another, “for as to this man Moses, we know not what has become of him.”
 
“The Lord God is your God—” Aaron faltered, but then drew away, his back to a boulder, when the crowd began to close in on him. I did not; I knew my place, a mere Benjaminite, and feared, not Aaron, but the God he served. This God wielded lightning at misbehaving mortals.
 
“Make us a god!” called a little fat man with a black beard, one Dathan.
 
“A god!” called a woman—she must have been Egyptian, by her dress, and the kohl on her eyes.
 
“Ay, and briefly!” Another.
 
“Ay, and wisely!” A laborer; I could tell by his leather apron.
 
“Ay, and truly, you were best—build us a god, Priest-Man!’
 
“A god!”
 
My heart went out to Old Aaron; what could he do? He had lost control of the people; they were behaving like willful children. Trying to delay, he asked the women for the golden jewelry they had looted from the Egyptian slavers—four hundred years of back pay, after all. Amazingly, they yanked the gold from their ears, from around their wrists and necks, and gave it up willingly. Foolish women! (I noted that my sister and mother did not participate; they hid in our tent.) Aaron cast the gold into a crucible over the fire: a puff of smoke and a crash, and hey presto! The Golden Calf emerged.

 

I need not tell you all that ensued—the shameful acts in which the Israelites indulged, led on by the Mixed Multitude—those Egyptian ne’er-do-wells whom Pharaoh, anxious to rid himself of all of his troublemakers at once, had freed from his prisons and mental hospitals. It was awful. People behaved like beasts, and cavorted before the Golden Idol. Aaron wisely—or cowardly—withdrew.
 
Doubtless, you have also heard of how the Old One, Moses, was descending from the mountain, and was met by his disciple, Lieutenant Joshua. We heard later of their dialogue:
 
“It is the sound of war in the camp!” said Joshua.
 
Moses cocked an aged ear. “No,” he disagreed, mournfully, “It is not the sound of war, nor of conflict; it is the sound of dancing and revelry I hear.” Moses was, I understand, growing more and more melancholy. He had lost his two boys, Gershom and Elazar; they had run off, discontented with his failure as a father. As for his wife Zipporah, she could not approach him, nor could they live together; a prophet had to remain pure at all times, or God would not speak to him.
 
Moses and Joshua descended—and beheld the atrocities: the People of God comporting themselves in a most ungodly fashion. Moses (again, this is hearsay) looked, and burst into tears. Without a People to receive it, what was the purpose of Torah? Reluctantly, as though in a God-inspired trance, he raised the heavy Tablets of the Law over his head,and sent them crashing to the ground—where they broke into a million pieces; or, as I heard swear from Ithamore the Cobbler, they remained intact, pulsing and glowing from God’s wrath.
 
“Lord Moses, let me smite these miscreants!” cried Joshua, for he was a man of war, and little given to deep thought or compassion.
 
“I—I—” stammered the Old One, and, as if hearing a Voice within, called out, in a mechanical-sounding voice unlike his own, “Levites—forward!”
 
When Moses’s fellow tribesmen stepped forward—they had been huddled in their tents during the Riotous Orgy—he commanded them, “Take your swords in hand—go through the Camp, and slaughter without mercy all those backsliders (The Mixed Multitude; who could be the instigators, if not they?) who could not await my return, but spurned the Lord God for a Golden Toy of a Calf!”
 
The bloodletting was terrible—if not a horror in itself, it also reduced the number of fighting-men we would need to face the Emorites, and the Amalekites, should they attack.
 
I told this to my father during the carnage, and he replied, “It is not the number of soldiers we Israelites have; it is the quality.” He looked away from the Levites’ massacre, and would say no more.
 
Finally, the attack ceased; the Levites silently sheathed their swords, and went off to Miriam’s Pool to wash off the blood, both physically and spiritually. I was aghast—how could their attack on our People be forgiven so quickly? Strange are the ways of the Holy One….
 
When I looked around, Moses had vanished. I approached Lt. Joshua (he was conferring with First Sgt. Calev) and prostrated myself before him. He smiled—that is, he showed me his teeth, pit bull that he was—and gave an arm to lift me up:
 
“Never bow to me, Maamin,” he said, remembering my name from his Military Training Exercises.

 

“Where is the Old One, Lieutenant?” I asked, giving the salute.
 
“Go into the Wilderness, the length of a bowshot,” Calev answered, pointing to the East, “and you will find Moses there. Look for the stone carved into the shape of a man’s head.”
 
I did so, and hiding behind the stone (It was later to be named Ras Kennedy, far-off in the future), I heard a crying voice calling out to God.
 
“If You will not lead this People,” came Moses’s voice, “then, blot me out of Your Book.”
 
“It will be you and no one else who leads them, Moses,” came a Voice, “for that is your destiny.”
 
“I cannot!” said Moses, “I am disgusted by the slaughter which You condoned….”
 
“Be silent, Ben Amram!” ordered the Voice, “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
 
“O, show me Your glory!” said Moses.
 
“I will hide you in the cleft of this rock,” said the Voice, “and I will pass by you in all My Might and Power and Glory, and you will see My Mercy. Your People have already experienced My Judgment.”
 
“O show me Your Face!” Moses wept.
 
“No one may look upon My Face and live,” the Voice replied, “But I will place My hand over you, to protect you, there in the rocky womb, and you will see My Back; but My Face no mortal shall ever see.”
 
And so was it done: the Tablets, the Mixed Multitude, and the beginning of Moses’s mental breakdown….

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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