Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot 5771)

As we observe this Sheltering Sabbath in Sukkot, the Festival of Shelter(s), I invite you to think about who is in your sukkah. There is so much in this Sukkoth parsha, that I scarcely know where to begin. There are three smaller portions in Exodus 33 on which I would like to focus. First, verse 12:

Exodus 33:12 Moshe said to the Holy One, “Look! You are the One who said to me, “Bring up this people!” Yet you have not let me know whom you will send with me…”

God has promised repeatedly to send a מלאך, a messenger, with Moshe. In Exodus 23:
20 I am going to send a messenger in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my Name is in him. 22 And if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.

And in Exodus 32:
34 Now go! Lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you. Look! my messenger shall go in front of you.

And at the beginning of Exodus 33, just prior to our lesson:
1 The Holy One said to Moshe, “Go, go up from this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ 2 I will send before you a messenger, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 - to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

Who then is the messenger of God? Who will God send in God’s place? Who is the one who bears the divine Name? Is this a human messenger? (מלאכים are frequently translatated as "angels" even though they do not have wings.)

 

In the story it is never clear. People look for a prophet like Moshe. Some will look for a messiah-king. It certainly wasn’t Joshua, or for that matter Aaron or even Miriam. A neo-rabbinic reading of the Greek text of Judges prepared for the Hellenistic diaspora might make Deborah a contender. In the Septuagint when Barak says that he will not go to war without his prophet Deborah he also says, “If you will go with me, I will go, and if you will not go with me, I will not go, for I do not know the day in which the Lord will send his angel on a good journey with me.” That may not settle it for you.

And what does it mean to be God’s messenger when the descriptive criteria in this passage are so violent and ultimately genocidal - at least if you’re an “-ite”: Canaanite, Jebusite, Amorite, Hivite, Hittite or Perizzite.

Next, what does it mean to be God’s people in this text?
Exodus 33:16 ...Will you not go with us, so that …נונפלינו, we shall be different, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth?”

What is this difference? This alp? This wonder? This excellence? This distinction? Prior to this it is the distinction between Israel and Egypt and between the land of Goshen where Israel dwells and the rest of Egypt where the Egptians live. It is also in the Gensis narrative, the wonder of Sarah’s pregnancy. And as we have just sung  from the song of Miriam in Exodus 15:11, it is מי-כמכה באלם... עשה פלא? (Who is like you among the gods… working wonders?)

How is Israel different in it’s story? An obvious answer is that Israel is different from the other nations in it’s God, the Name of it’s God and the Torah of it’s God. I think these distinctions are to be understood as wondrous for song-writers, contemplatives and visionaries. But the Israelites in the text certainly did not always experience their differences as wondrous, especially at the hands of those who would not be considered wondrous by this standard.

And last, but not least, who then is this God - in this text at least - apart from the Most Holy Name?
Exodus 33:19 The Holy One of Old said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you hDwh◊y MEvVb in the Name of The One, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will mother-love whom I will mother-love.

What is is God’s proclamation? The JPS and NRSV translations and even Everett Fox make it look like what God proclaims is the Name itself, but they do this by dropping the ב in בשם. But in the RGT, the Revised Gafney Translation of the Tanakh, the targumenet, translator-prophet is a conservative one and hates to give up even a single letter in the Torah, and so the proclamation is in the Most Holy Name. What is the proclamation? The divine perrogative:

וחנתי את-אשר אחן I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,
ורחמתי את-אשר ארחם and I will mother-love whom I will mother-love.


To roll the scroll of this midrash, what does it mean to be a messenger of a gracious mother-loving God to a wonderfully different people? Who is (or can be) a messenger of a gracious mother-loving God to this (or any other) wonderfully different people? And are there other messengers to other wonderfully different peoples? And what do we do when the gracious mother-loving God seems like an ancient fiction far removed from either the text that reveals the divine Name or the broken world that seems unworthy of it?

 

A final thought from a text that is apocryphal in this congregation, the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews 13:

2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 

D'var Torah, Dorshei Derekh

Germantown Jewish Center, Shabbat Sukkot, 5771