That’s odd. The calendar on my phone has each week’s Torah portion written in, but it was blank. I logged on to hebcal.com to see why there was no Torah portion listed for this Shabbat. I knew it couldn’t be Bereshit, (Genesis 1:1) the very beginning, because we need to get past Simchat Torah for that, and Simchat Torah is next week. But I was pretty sure we’d read Haazinu, the last Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy, last week. What a quandary!
So where are we? Literally hanging between the end and another beginning. We are off the grid, floating in space, betwixt and between, between wilderness and the void.
We read Chol Hamoed Sukkot this Shabbat – that is, the Shabbat of the middle days of the week long holiday of Sukkot. Following me? And of course, the great Torah reading planners found the perfect section of Torah to read: Ki Tisa. We’re back in the wilderness, just after our Exodus from Egypt, and facing some of our very dramatic moments as a new people.
Here are a few of the “highlights” from Ki Tisa: Building the Tabernacle. The Golden Calf. Moses sees God, but only from the back, from a cleft in the rock. God forgives the people for the Calf incident. There’s a lot here.
So why read this section now, suspended between the end and the beginning, out in the wilderness? First, there is a very real connection to building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and our Sukkot. We build these fragile little huts every year to remind us of the time in the wilderness, and in Ki Tisa, we get the detailed instructions of how to do that. But it’s not just about putting joint A into brace B. It’s what happens inside that space. Our Sukkot aren’t anywhere as fancy as the Mishkan was –I certainly don’t have any gold cherubs or copper lavers in my sukkah. Holy things happened in the Mishkan, for an entire nation. Holy things happen in our sukkah, for only one family. But the holiness is the same – joy, community, ritual. Both structures are temporary; the Israelites collapsed the Mishkan when they broke camp, and set it back up again when they made camp. We break down and re-build the Sukkah every year. Both are fragile, yet stand for eons because of what happened inside then, and what happens inside now. That’s what lasts, that’s what is holy.
In the part we actually read this Shabbat, Moses asks for some clarification from God: Will God really stick with this people? How will the people know? And even when God agrees to re-affirm the covenant, Moses asks to see God, “Oh, let me behold your Presence!” (Ex 33:18) God agrees to that too, but only from behind, never seeing God’s face. Then God tells Moses to make the second set of tablets, and start the whole Revelation course over again.
During the High Holy Days, we re-affirm our personal connection with God. During Sukkot, with this reading, we re-affirm our national identity, as the ones who followed God into the wilderness on the flimsiest of promises, the most fragile of arrangements, followed a dismal path into idol worship, got forgiven (as a group, not as individuals, like last week) and continued on toward receiving Torah, a bit chastened, sadder but wiser, and ready to find the holy. We stand in between – between the end of the Torah, and the beginning, balancing our individual and communal identities, between the sky and the ground, peeking through the coverings of our Sukkot, to glimpse even the back of God.