For the week of October 7, 2017 / 17 Tishri 5778
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:17-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16
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And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:14-15)
In preparation to depart from Mt. Sinai, not long after the tragic incident of the Golden Calf, Moses is praying. He is praying and he is listening. While most of us will unlikely experience divine communication at anywhere near this level, prayer is more of a conversation than we generally think. We are not going to delve into that now, however. It’s the dynamic of this particular conversation that I wish to focus on.
What’s going on here sounds more like an argument than a conversation. And a strange argument at that. It’s sounds like one of those I-am-agreeing-with-you type arguments, where people passionately just about echo each other’s words, while somehow implying that each party isn’t quite satisfied that they’re getting their point across.
God: My presence will go with you.
Moses: We’re not going anywhere unless you go with us.
What’s Moses problem here? God said he would go with them. Why does Moses keep on about this if God said he would do it?
The problem is a little worse in the original Hebrew, which reads more like this:
God: My presence shall go…
Moses: If your presence does not go…
In the Hebrew, both instances of “go” doesn’t specify with whom God is going or not going. Presumably the confusion is only the reader’s, since God and Moses seem to know what they were arguing over. The translation I chose irons out the ambiguity by adding “with you” (singular) to what God says and “with us” to Moses’s words. This clarification on the part of the translators is justified by a reading of the entire interaction. The back and forth between Moses and God is due to God’s commitment to Moses alone, assuring him that his presence will be with him personally. But that’s not good enough for Moses. He wants assurance that God will be present with the whole nation. This isn’t clear until verse 16: “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (emphasis mine).
This is the mark of a true leader. Moses has extraordinary favor with God. But that’s not good enough for him. He wants the people to have what he has. He isn’t satisfied to be their champion or their hero. He knows that in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t about his success, his fame, nor even his legacy. We justify leader focus because of our assumption that as leaders go, so do the people they lead. Certainly there is some truth in this. We see such an example in the history of the Israelite monarchy. If a king was good, which was rarely the case, things went well for the nation. If a king was evil, the nation suffered. The principle works, but should this principle be our goal? Instead should not our hearts be for the people we lead, whatever be the scope and scale of our leadership?
For our families, our friends, co-workers, employees, congregations, and nations, it should not be sufficient to simply strive to be the best person possible. We need to truly care about people like Moses did. The blessings we ask for needn’t be channeled through us. May God bless people directly. If we get to play a part in that process, that’s great. But is it necessary? Isn’t God’s blessing a result of his undeserved love and mercy? He doesn’t really need us anyway. Yet he delights to use us.
I know we know this. And yet, it is so easy to fixate on ourselves. Perhaps that is why this interchange between God and Moses is so instructive. It’s a battle to fight for blessing upon others and not just ourselves. It isn’t as if blessing needs to be wrenched from God, who is so generous. It’s we whose hands need to be pried open through prayer that we might come to that place where we will fight for God’s blessing upon others.
Scriptures taken from New American Standard Bible