The wilderness of not knowing: Ki Tisa 5782
In recent weeks we’ve been reading Torah’s instructions for the mishkan, the sacred space that we build so God’s presence may dwell in us. Soon we’ll start reading about the actual building thereof. But in between the blueprints and the construction, in this week’s Torah portion, there’s another story.
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses — the man who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him…” (Ex. 32:1)
This year I’m noticing a new emotional valance. Moses went up the mountain, and they probably expected him to come right back down. But he didn’t. And the path ahead began to seem uncertain. Maybe they felt like life was on pause, or felt uncertain when they would start moving again.
Instead of that nebulous uncertainty, they wanted something tangible. Don’t tell us you don’t know how long it will be: we want to get back to normal now. Just make something up so we can feel normal now, because the not-knowing and the waiting are psychologically and spiritually uncomfortable!
I think we know that feeling. And if that’s sometimes true for us, how much more true it must have been for our spiritual ancestors emerging from slavery? Not knowing can be terrifying, especially for someone unaccustomed to freedom. They were like children: seeking easy answers, resisting growing up.
The thing is, there’s holiness in the not-knowing. There’s holiness in opening ourselves to the uncertainties of wilderness. It’s no coincidence that our ancestors hear God’s voice most clearly in the wilderness. The midbar (wilderness) is where God m’daber (speaks) — or at least, where we hear.
Right now I’m in a different kind of midbar, a different kind of wilderness waiting. Some of you know that my father, who is eighty-seven, has been in and out of the hospital this winter with COVID and then post-COVID complications. He’s now receiving hospice care. The end of his journey is beginning.
And we don’t know when the end will be. The weight of that not-knowing is tremendous sometimes. There’s a temptation to lurch toward certainties, to clutch at “answers” that aren’t really answers. To think: what can we throw at this to yield a nice, satisfying answer that will get us back to normal?
But there is no “back to normal” when someone is dying. I can’t go back to the years when he was vital and vibrant, because this is a new part of his journey now — and mine. So I’m in the wilderness. It’s not comfortable, sitting with mortality. I empathize with the Children of Israel making that calf.
And I know that this wilderness has something to teach me, if I can quiet my racing thoughts and anxious heart in order to learn. This is my own wilderness — mine, and my family’s. And… soon we will reach one million COVID deaths in the United States. There are a lot of us in this wilderness.
This week’s Torah portion reminds me that it’s tempting to clutch at whatever we think will make us feel better. Anything to push away this not-knowing, whether the uncertainty is personal (like my father’s trajectory) or communal (like COVID). Not knowing what comes next (or when) is uncomfortable.
Today’s golden calves are a bit subtler than the literal statue in Torah. Maybe we focus on denial of death, or on our outrage about the latest horrific headlines. Either way, we become like the guy in the Zen parable about the teacup: keeping our cup so artificially full that no wisdom can pour in.
This Shabbes, let’s take time to be with the not-knowing. We don’t know when death will come: that’s not just true for my dad in hospice. We don’t know when the pandemic will recede. We don’t know when Moses will come back down the mountain. Let’s open our hearts, and let the not-knowing in.
This is Rabbi Rachel’s d’varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)