By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
We were driving my daughters to my in-laws’ house up north for two nights. (My husband and I were continuing on to Tremblant without them). First, I realized I left their toiletry bag in their bathroom. So we pulled off the highway to get essential replacements: toothbrushes, toothpaste (each their own flavour), children’s Advil, and Benadryl (just in case). Then, my eldest realized she’d forgotten her “little pillow.” This was the real disaster.
Each child has her own “thing” she sleeps with, that she believes she cannot sleep without. When we go on vacation each child is responsible for packing said item in her carry-on bag or knapsack. (And yes, I usually double-check, but obviously, I was distracted that morning). So while my daughter started slowly panicking about how she was unable to sleep without her pillow, I went into outer calm – “it’s going to be fine,” “you’ll be able to sleep” – mother mode, while inside, I was totally freaking out. I was leaving my most difficult and anxious sleeper without her concrete object of comfort.
I don’t know how or when my children became attached to their objects of comfort. As babies, their sleep habits developed very differently from each other, but alas, if they’re sleeping, who really wants to investigate further? And yes, I’ve heard of parents who keep multiples of these objects hidden away in case of loss or laundry. I admire the forethought. I never claimed to my children that the pillow, bear or blankie had magical properties. I made sure the objects were in their beds at night and that they were washed regularly, but otherwise, I attributed to them little significance. Until the pillow was forgotten.
This coming Shabbat falls within the holiday of Sukkoth and there is a special Torah reading, outside the regular cycle of parshioth. This section of text from the book of Exodus follows the episode of the golden calf when the Israelite people, distressed at Moses’ prolonged absence on Mount Sinai, built a golden calf and worshiped it. Upon descending from the mountain and viewing the spectacle before him, Moses smashed the Tablets of Law. Without Moses to represent their relationship with God, the people needed a concrete replacement. In anger and frustration Moses destroyed another concrete representation of this relationship – the Tablets.
In the portion of text we will read, Moses challenges God to show Himself: “And now if I have indeed found favour in Your eyes, make Your ways known to me, so that I may know You, so that I shall find favour in Your eyes. And see that this nation is Your people.” Further on Moses says, “Please show me Your glory.” And God responds favourably, agreeing to Moses’ requests, “The Lord said to Moses, This matter too of which you spoke I will do, for you have found favour in my eyes and I have known you by name.” This exchange attests to a very special and unique relationship between God and Moses. “You will see my back but my face may not be seen.” God then commands Moses to carve a second set of Tablets for God to inscribe.
On Simchat Torah, we will read the final Parashah of the Torah – Ve- Zot Ha-Berakhah – in which the relationship between Moses and God is illuminated further. Moments before his death, Moses blesses the nation of Israel as a whole, and then each tribe individually. In the very beginning of the Parashah, Moses is called “the man of God,” and at the end, he is referred to as “servant of the Lord.” The Torah also tells us, “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses whom the Lord had known face to face.” Since we learned in Exodus (in the section of text we will read on Shabbat) that Moses was not able to see God’s face – “You shall not be able to see My face for no human can see My face and live” – Rashi explains that the phrase “whom the Lord had known face to face” means that Moses had an informal relationship with God and would speak to Him anytime he wished. Moses climbs Mount Nebo, God shows him the land of Israel he will not enter, and then the text tells us: “And Moses, servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Lord. He buried him in the gorge, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, and no one knows his burial place to this day.” On the one hand, the Torah seems to describe the exact location of Moses’s grave – in the gorge, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor – and yet, on the other hand, “no one knows his burial place to this day.” The Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, 14th-century-French Jewish philosopher, physician and scholar) explains that from this dichotomy we learn that God was protecting future generations from worshipping Moses as a deity.
Human nature derives comfort or hinges faith on that which is tangible. It’s hard to believe in something you can’t see or feel. It requires no stretch of the imagination to envision pilgrimages to Moses’ grave had we known where it was. The relationship between God and Moses was so intwined and Moses’ role as God’s emissary so complete that Moses himself is not mentioned in the Passover Haggadah to ensure that we understand unequivocably that the source of the miracles of the Exodus is God and not Moses. When the Israelite people could no longer see and interact with Moses, they needed to create a tangible replacement in order to maintain their faith in the existence of God. Likewise, his grave surely could have served as a source of magical comfort.
Interestingly, the holiday of Sukkoth exemplifies a similar relationship to concrete symbols of faith and observance. The sukkot remind us of the physical dwellings of the Israelites in the desert. But they also represent the trust and hope the Israelites placed in God to protect them in their journey in the desert. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his book The Jewish Way (p. 100), writes about what the sukkah teaches us about protection:
“Human beings instinctively strive to build solid walls of security. People shut out life; they heap up treasures and power and status symbols in the hope of excluding death and disaster and even the unexpected. This search for “solid” security all too often leads to idolatry, to the worship of things that give security. People end up sacrificing values and even loved ones to obtain the tangible sources of security. The sukkah urges people to give up this pseudo-safety.”
Ironically, we need a tangible symbol to teach us the lesson of God’s abstract protection and the limits of self-protection. Such is human nature. We read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes ) this Shabbat as well in which “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and “who loves money will never have his fill of money,” is contrasted against Sukkoth as a harvest festival and its celebration of material goods. We learn from this holiday that there is room for both the concrete and abstract representations of hope, faith, comfort and security; that to fully rejoice in the holiday, its meanings, symbols, traditions and customs, we need both tangible and intangible connections to our relationship with God. Similarly, we know exactly where God buried Moses and yet no one knows the location of his grave.
My daughter slept without her little pillow. My mother-in-law fashioned a substitute, but my daughter claimed it was not helpful. She didn’t seem to realize that with this comment she admitted to being able to sleep without the pillow. Symbols of security and comfort serve their purpose, but as the Torah readings and the holiday of Sukkoth demonstrate they should not hold us back from the vulnerability of the unknown. We must live our lives, sleep at our grandparents, and be open to the unexpected, even if we cannot see or feel God’s presence.
Please continue to remember Jay – Yosef Israel ben Zelda – in your prayers.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.
Discussion Questions for the Shabbat and Yom Tov Table:
Why do you think the Torah tells us that no one knows where Moses is buried?
- Why are the Israelites forbidden from worshipping idols?
- Why do objects made by people also offer people comfort or security?
- Do you have an object you must always have with you at a specific time – for sleep, or when you go to school – that offers you comfort?
- Why do you think it comforts you?