Moses & the Storm
According to tradition, Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first day of the month before the High Holy Days) was the day that Moses went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. According to this teaching, Moses then spent the next 40 days on the mountain, returning to the people on Yom Kippur.
You’ll remember of course that the first time Moses went up to the mountain, the Israelites got scared that he was never going to return and eventually built and worshipped the golden calf. When Moses did return, he saw the calf and threw the 1st set of tablets on the ground in fury, shattering them.
All of the parallels between Moses climbing Sinai and our preparing ourselves spiritually for the High Holy Days coalesced into a new midrash, a story of this experience which is written from Moses’ perspective.
MOSES AND THE STORM
Again. I have to ascend, again. This was my first thought as I looked at the shattered tablets at my feet. It was the thought that rang in my mind like a drum as I locked eyes with my brother Aaron who was standing across the sea of Israelites, the men and women who we had led out of Egypt and who had been so quick to succumb to fear and faithlessness. Again. I have to do it all again.
I gave myself a day at the bottom of the mountain. A day when I could repack my supplies and gather what I needed. My family begged me to remain with them, to let myself heal and rest, but I dismissed them. What did they know? I had been up the mountain before, and I knew that the path toward the summit, the path toward God, would be just the same no matter when I started. And so, the next morning, I was up before the sun. By the time my people had come out of their tents and had started poking at their cook fires, I was already on the mountain.
I climbed for hours and hours. My fingers cramped and my feet bled as I scrambled up the face of Sinai. At some point I realized that the clouds that had surrounded the mountain since our people had arrived had transformed. Gone were the delicate mists of dew which protected the people from the power of the sublime. Gone were the iridescent droplets that seemed to decorate my path on my first journey to the summit.
No, now the mountain was surrounded by clouds that shook with thunder and flashed with lightning. No delicate droplets remained; now the world was filled with a clinging fog that seemed to reek of the anger that God felt for the people’s failure.
I leapt over crevasses so deep that they seemed to simply fade into darkness. Every time I landed safely on the other side of these chasms, I wondered if I would have simply kept falling forever if I hadn’t made it.
Each step of the journey to the summit felt infinitely more difficult than it had the first time I made this climb.
When I made camp at the end of my first day back on the mountain, I built a fire to chase away the cold. As I stared into the dancing flames, I was reminded of the moment when I first heard God’s voice, when the One Who Is spoke to me from a bush that burned brightly but was not consumed.
“I wish you had told me that it would be this hard.” I whispered to the fire. “I wish you had warned me that the people you gave me would be so weak. I wish that I had known all of this before I agreed to be their leader. I wish that I had known that I would have to climb this mountain again before I left the summit in the first place. How was I to know that in my absence the people would have given in to their fear? Why should I be punished for their failures and forced to climb this mountain even though it shakes with your anger?”
I sat for hours in front of the fire and indulged my anger, stoking it until it burned as brightly as the flames.
The next morning, I began my climb again. Dragging myself over boulders and inching along tiny ledges. I climbed for so long that I lost track of the days. I could no longer see the sun. The clouds that shrouded the mountain were so dark and heavy that they were almost opaque. I have no idea how long I’ve been climbing or even where I am on the mountain. Surely my first trip to God had not taken this long. Was I lost? Did I even know which way I was headed? Was I going so slowly that God would not be waiting for me when I arrived?
My chest began to feel tight, as if part of the mountain had come loose and was crushing me. I dragged myself to a small cliff, the only level place that I could see, and I lay on the jagged stone, dragging my cloak close and shivering with fear and cold.
The clouds began to swirl around me, and the only light I could see came from the forking tongues of lightning that cracked incessantly across the sky.
I had failed. I could go no farther. God had abandoned me in the storm. I was lost and would remain lost … forever. And as I huddled there on that cliff, I thought of my brother and the people that we cared for. I wished that I could tell Aaron that I understood. I wished I could tell him that at that moment, as I lay in the midst of the storm without guidance or hope, I knew that I would do anything to survive, to find my footing in the chaos. I wished I could tell him that if he and the people had felt half as lost as I did in that moment, then I understood why they turned to a golden promise of leadership, of safety, and of connection to God.
I wept as I thought about the anger that I had shown towards my brother and our people. I wept as I imagined a version of the story where I hadn’t thrown the tablets down in fury and instead had approached them with concern and curiosity. I wept and wept and wept until a painful laugh escaped my throat. I turned and looked straight up into the swirling clouds. I let the rain flood my face as I whispered to myself, “If I had thrown away my anger instead of the tablets, I wouldn’t be on this mountain again.”
At that moment, a lightning bolt forked across the sky, so bright and so bold that I screwed my eyes shut and threw my arm over my face. After a cataclysm of thunder sounded all around me, the air... changed… and all I could sense was stillness. Gingerly, fearfully, I removed my arm from my face and blinked open my eyes.
I sat up in shock, looking around ...at a world transformed. The choking clouds that had been present at every part of my climb were gone, all around the air was bright and shimmering. The only sign of the constant downpour was the way that everything appeared to have been washed clean, as if the world were once again shiny and new.
I stood slowly, looking around, trying to see if I could discover where I was. As I turned, I saw a bit of the path that I remembered from my first trip up Sinai and immediately felt tears begin to streak down my face again. I had been only steps from the summit.
I removed my shoes and stepped back into that holy space. “I have returned, Holy One.” I whispered, “I must ask you to renew your covenant with your people and once again inscribe your commandments.”
“Moses,” the Voice replied, “My tablets have been shattered! Who is to blame for this blasphemy!”
“The people,” I began... but then paused. Had the air darkened again? Was the storm returning? I hurried to continue, “Holy One. I am responsible for the tablets’ destruction. I’ve been climbing for days and days, and I will admit that, at first, I blamed our people. But then I found myself in the midst of a storm, terrified that You had abandoned me, and worried that I would be lost forever. It was as if the mountain was fighting me at every turn. And in my terror, I would have prayed to anything that promised me safety. It was then that I understood. The people were scared, and they acted badly. But so did I. I am the reason the tablets were destroyed. I am the one to blame. I ask you to forgive me and I pray that the effort that I have expended to return to You, to return to the top of this mountain is enough proof that I remain devoted to Your Teaching.”
“Moses,” said the Holy One. “The mountain did not shake with my anger but with yours. The path was difficult because you were struggling in your heart.
I remain. I Am That I Am. I am Eternal. You are changeable.
The storm was not a reflection of me but of you. The chaos inside of you, the anger, the hate, that is what made your path to me so difficult. The moment you found empathy, compassion, forgiveness, the moment you took ownership of your failings...that was when you saw that you were but steps away from holiness. Let this be a lesson to you and all who come after you. Hate and anger make the path to God all but impassable. Empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and the willingness to own your failings, these are reflections of all that is Holy.”
I bowed my head in recognition of this wisdom and promised, “I will not fail you again, Holy One.”
The Voice replied, “Of course you will. You are holy but not divine. When you fail, remember that empathy, compassion, and forgiveness can be shown to yourself as well. I will be waiting, no matter how long you climb. Trust in my faithfulness, even if you struggle with your own.”
I remained on the mountain for forty days, and at the end of that time, I carried the new tablets down a path so smooth that I could have been walking on silk. I hurried down the last bit of the mountain- eager to see my people, to tell them of my journey, to show them the holiness that lived inside of me, to promise them that we would start the next chapter of our story together on equal footing, and to embrace them with the empathy I had been shown by our God.