In the Ron Howard film Parenthood, Gil Buckman (Steve Martin) suffers with an array of life stresses, including being passed up for a raise and promotion, financial problems, a son who keeps having panic attacks, a gambling-addicted brother, and a hard-headed father. Gil is angry, doesn’t understand why things have to be so hard all the time, and he feels as though he has no control. All the while, his seemingly senile grandma continues to speak of a random memory of riding a roller-coaster. By the end of the movie, Gil learns that the roller-coaster is just the right metaphor for life, and that a lesson we must learn is to go with it, including its ups and downs, twists and turns.
Some of us may understand why Gil wasn’t enjoying the “rollercoaster.” Sometimes the stress seems impossible to bear; we feel alone and afraid within the uncertainty of it all. We even wonder where God, the Source of Life and Energy must be in this – how could a loving God allow for a world filled with so much stress? Where is God anyway and why does life have to be this way?
In Parshat Ki Tissa, after many ups and downs, including the giving of the tablets of the Pact, the offense and subsequent punishment of the golden calf, and God’s threat to destroy Israel, Moses cannot help but to call out to God, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (Ex. 33:18)
Moses, stressed and afraid, perhaps feeling all alone, wanted to see God. But what would he gain from seeing God, from the sight of God’s Presence? How would this help him? One of the most interesting, traditional answers to this question is Maimonides’s suggestion that Moses wanted to know God – to intellectually grasp and understand who or what God is and God’s motivations. In other words, he wanted to be one with God’s mind.
This understanding illuminates something very important about human psychology and spirituality. Maimonides points out that Moses, like most of us, would love to come to know God’s “mind,” especially during times of stress. We would love to know why pain and suffering happen, why life isn’t easy all the time and why we have to work so hard. We would love to have the mental and emotional control of stepping outside of life, for maybe, just maybe, if we could step outside of life and look down upon it from above, we might be able to absent ourselves from the pain and fear. If we knew how the roller-coaster was built, so to speak, and where the “scary parts” were, we could close our eyes and open them again in time for the “fun parts” ahead.
God, of course, does not oblige Moses’s request, rather God shields his face as “God’s goodness” passes by. A traditional understanding for why God covers Moses’s face is that if Moses were to see God and, in turn, know God’s “mind” he would have to take on the unbearable responsibility for all humanity, as God does. Dr. Avivah Zornberg, however, offers an alternative explanation, noting that this humbling response underscores the essential challenge of the human spiritual condition. She writes that this teaches us that “the only union possible is in relationship, which means separateness.” That is to say, ultimately, we are individuals and must be able to personally move beyond fear and pain on our own terms; others may offer strength, support, and guidance, but it is up to each of us individually to actually live life and endure.
Perhaps the most poignant teaching about this particular encounter is from Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040-1105). He says that, although God does not grant his request, when God passes by Moses he is taught how to pray – how to call to God. Here, Rashi recognizes that even though we may never be able to behold God’s Presence, when we are in need, alone, afraid, and we yearn to be connected, we have the gift of prayer. This is a true gift because we all crave to call out to the universe and express our fears, just as on the roller-coaster we need to squeal and scream. We also need to speak our desires, our hopes, our gratitude, and confessions, for somehow in the speaking of what we hold within we cease to be alone – the energy expressed binds us with the energy of the divine and all the universe.
Life will take us up and down, twist and flip us, and we must accept that there are simply some things in God’s hands alone and out of our own. However, we are a people that believes in the power of words. Words can create and destroy worlds and they can also topple the walls between heaven and earth. The words of prayer, even a single one, can bring us closer to God, closer to balance, and closer to inner peace. These words are a part of the self-healing that is necessary every day in our roller-coaster of a world.
Rabbi Paul Steinberg