David Lerner

Down and Up – Ki Tissa 5784

Amidst everything going on in the world, we need moments of joy, dare I say, even moments of laughter.

So, this past week Sharon and I were invited to see a Jewish comedian: Modi.

Anyone ever hear of Modi?

Modi is just straight up Jewy — he has great shtick you can watch on social media explaining the difference between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazim.

The Sephardic Jews radiate joy and enthusiasm. They greet each other at shul with “Shabbat Shalom!”

The Ashkenazim are kind of kvetching, offering subdued, “Gut shabbes….”

After a Sephardic Jew has an aliyah, the entire congregation breaks into: “Hazak U’Barukh. With kisses and everything. I love it.

After an aliyah in an Ashkenazi shul people say, shkoah, shkoah…

I do this. I do this. And it’s good to make fun of yourself.

So, in case it’s not clear, right after Shabbat, I am filling out the paperwork and converting…  to become Sephardic.

In fact, I am going to suggest we all bring in some of that energy.

I laughed hard — and let me say that he wasn’t perfect — he leaned a bit too much into some stereotypes, but it was really good for my neshamah, for my soul.

He did one sketch about the Shabbat elevator — are you familiar with a Shabbat elevator?–shabbat-friendly-project-addresses-needs-of-uclas601e52aad6

It’s an elevator that stops on every floor so an observant Jew doesn’t have to press a button and use electricity which some say is forbidden on Shabbat. Modi reenacts a conversation trying to explain this to someone unfamiliar with it.

So, why is it that you can use the Shabbes elevator? “Well, because you are not really using the electricity, it’s going automatically; while a regular elevator should not be used on Shabbat because we are pressing a button which is like work, which is forbidden on Shabbes… So you cannot use an elevator but you can use this one…

Well, anyway, it was hilarious.

The image of the elevator going up and down made me think of Moses going up and down Mt, Sinai. (And yes, that’s my segué).

While there is no electricity, it seems as if Moses is on a Ferris wheel operated by an overzealous teenager. Up and down about five or six times in Parashat Yitro which we read last month and it continues in our reading this morning.

Like the great questions Rosa asked in her d’var Torah, we can ask why. Why is he going up and down so much? My rabbinic classmate said he is trying to get in his steps.

We know that he is called up by God to receive the Ten Commandments, but then he goes down and then up — over and over again. Sometimes, it’s clear — like when the Israelites are afraid of all the pyrotechnics, so they move far away from the mountain and tell Moses ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, [or we gonna] (lest we) die.'” (Exodus 20:18–19)

And then Moses comes down, and… everything comes crashing down with the idolatrous building of the Golden Calf.

The tablets of stone etched by Divine energy are smashed at the bottom of the mountain.

This is it.

The height of revelation.

The moments of the most intense contact between Israel and God… and it all falls apart.

The Torah is teaching us something fundamental – that nothing is perfect in our world.

Even when everything seems right, there’s a basic fragility that permeates existence.

Everything can shatter – even at Sinai.

* * *

But the narrative doesn’t end there. Moses ascends again. He offers his own life in exchange for the lives of the Israelites. And this, this is the beginning of the repair, of a transformation.

Reb Nahman of Bratzlav, a great 18th-century Hasidic master, taught: “If you believe it is possible to break, believe that it is possible to repair.”

Brokenness is everywhere.

It is in the destruction of our natural world, in the threats of wars and actual wars.

We feel it most intensely as Jews who are experiencing hate at unprecedented levels, and in the tragedy of October 7th which I saw with my own eyes.

We see it in the death of innocents in Gaza and in the suffering of our hostages.

We see it in acts of vandalism, swastikas drawn on our schools, the virulence on our college campuses, and on social media.

And all this impacts our relationships and ourselves.

We feel the brokenness and how it hurts our own neshamot,  our own souls.

* * *

Before Moses can ascend for the eighth and final time, the text shifts. The camera turns from Sinai …to a simple tent in the wilderness. We learn about Moses’s tent where he would meet with God outside the camp. The Torah states that the people “hibeetu aharei Moshe – they would gaze at Moses.” Rashi quotes the rabbis in Midrash and the Talmud who suggest that the Israelites were no longer carrying the anger of the rupture of their relationship with Moses and God; they looked at Moses with admiration.

They exclaim, “Happy is the human being who feels that the Shekhinah – the Divine Presence will come into their tent.”

They do not get stuck in the messiness of our flawed world, but they can appreciate joy and return to joy. They become happy. It’s as if they were original Sephardic Jews.

And after this small interregnum, this pause in the action, Moses has an intimate conversation with the Holy One asking to see God’s K’vod, God’s Presence. The Divine accedes to this request and God states that “tuvi –  My tov, My goodness will pass before you … but you cannot see My face.” (Ex 34:19-20).

How does this work?

Moses stands behind a rock and God places him in the cleft of the rock and passes by so Moses can see God’s back.

Why is Moses placed in this cleft, the crevice in the rock?

The simple answer is that he is protected there. Protected from the overwhelming energy of Divine Power or Light that could overwhelm or even kill Moses.

But there is something else.

What exactly is the cleft of the rock? Nikrat Hatzur?

Now, I have never thought about it this way, but how is this cleft, this crevice made?

Science explains that when rocks are under extreme stress, they can crack.

So, Moses is a place of stress, a place that has been broken and then and there, he can see the Divine Presence, or at least Its back.

Not God, of course, but where God was, God’s wake. And after this, then can Moses ascend Mount Sinai again and carve the second set of tablets to replace the first which were shattered.

* * *

There is something so powerful about this moment. There is distance and closeness. There is brokenness and wholeness. Only when we go into that crevice, that pressured place, that cracked place, only there can we see glimpses of the Divine.

Three moments stand out in this narrative: Moses’s deep concern for the people, the Israelites’ shift in attitude – seeing Moses’s virtue, and finally, going into the cracks, and then you can see the Good in the world.

That’s the deepest spiritual place. Going into the crevices in the world… and in our own selves.

* * *

Friends, this is a moment in history just like this week’s Torah reading – a time of deep rupture, of the shattering of worlds, but as our Hasidic masters taught, every moment contains the beginning of its own tikkun, of its own repair, of its own healing.

We come together today and we can see glimmers of hope and then it is from that shattered world, that we find that goodness.

The ups and downs of life.

Not a Shabbat elevator, but actually something much, much deeper and much higher.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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