The Shabbat during Chol Ha’moed Sukkot has a special Torah reading, Exodus 33:12 – 34:26. In it we read of Moshe’s encounter with Hashem after the incident with the molten calf. Hashem affirms that He will continue to go with the people of Israel with Moshe as their leader and mediator—at least for their immediate future. Moshe is tasked to prepare two new stone tablets to replace the ones he broke in anger upon seeing the peoples’ transgression with the molten calf. And finally, what many see as the crux of this passage and is almost as well known as the Shema, are the “Thirteen Attributes of Hashem,” that Hashem proclaims about Himself.
Then ADONAI passed before him, and proclaimed, “ADONAI, ADONAI, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means leaving the guilty unpunished, but bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”Exodus 34:6-7 (TLV)
This affirmation of Hashem’s character remains a source of comfort for both Jews and Christians alike as He announced to Moshe and essentially to all of creation that while justice and discipline are assuredly a part of his character, compassion, grace, lovingkindness and mercy are even more so. All who are in relationship with the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob should take heart and comfort in this proclamation.
While I said that many find this affirmation to be the crux of this week’s portion, I was especially impressed with the next section of the Torah reading, that being Hashem’s specific promise to Moshe as he continues to lead a people who in the natural seem to be more trouble than they are worth.
Then He said, “I am cutting a covenant. Before all your people I will do wonders, such as have not been done in all the earth, or in any nation. All the people you are among will see the work of ADONAI—for what I am going to do with you will be awesome! Obey what I am commanding you today.Exodus 34:10-11
Another translation states,
He said, Behold! I enter a covenant: Before your entire people I shall make distinctions such as have never been created in the entire world and among all the nations; and the entire people in whose midst you are will see the work of Hashem – for it is awesome – that I am about to do with you.Exodus 34:10-11, (Artscroll)
The reason for the second translation is that while it is true that in calling Israel out to be His own, Hashem did wonders the likes of which had never been done before, but it is also true that in doing so, He made distinctions such as had never been seen before. Israel was and still is to be a people set apart, holy unto ADONAI Tzva’ot. Rashi noted that the word נִפְלָאֹת, translated ‘wonders’ in the TLV, is related to נִפְלִינוּ, which in 33:16 is translated ‘set apart’ or ‘distinct’ from all the peoples of the earth (Rashi on Exodus 34 10). The Psalmist would affirm these distinctions when he wrote,
For ADONAI has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel as His treasured possession.Psalm 135:4
He declares His word to Jacob, His decrees and His rulings to Israel. He has not done so with any other nation. They have not known His judgments.Psalm 147:19-20
Israel is unique, not because of anything intrinsically special about Israel, but because of Hashem’s own choosing.
For you are a holy people to ADONAI your God—from all the peoples on the face of the earth, ADONAI your God has chosen you to be His treasured people. It is not because you are more numerous than all the peoples that ADONAI set His love on you and chose you—for you are the least of all peoples. Rather, because of His love for you and His keeping the oath He swore to your fathers, ADONAI brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.Deuteronomy 7:6-8
It is often said that the Apostle Paul, or Rav Shaul, did away with these distinctions, though his own words would seem to nullify that assumption.
Then what is the advantage of being Jewish? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Much in every way. First of all, they were entrusted with the sayings of God. So what if some did not trust? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? May it never be! Let God be true even if every man is a liar, as it is written, “that You may be righteous in Your words and prevail when You are judged.”Romans 3:1-4
In this day and age when anti-Semitism is once more on the rise, and almost weekly there are episodes of hate crimes perpetrated against Jews and Jewish places of worship, it is often said that if the Jews would just put aside their distinctive actions and practices and become like everyone else, these so called atrocities would end. In other words, it is the Jews that is causing the “nations” to rise up against the Jews. Here is a secret, it was not the Jews who chose to be unique or distinct. It was Hashem who set the Jewish people apart, who established the distinctive lifestyle and practices that make them different from the rest of the world. And secret number two, the Jews aren’t going away.
Thus says ADONAI, who gives the sun as a light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars as a light by night, who stirs up the sea so its waves roar, ADONAI-Tzva’ot is His Name: “Only if this fixed order departs from before Me”—it is a declaration of ADONAI—“then also might Israel’s offspring cease from being a nation before Me—for all time.” Thus says ADONAI: “Only if heaven above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then also I will cast off the offspring of Israel—for all they have done.” It is a declaration of ADONAI.Jeremiah 31:34-36
Hashem set Israel apart to Himself and established His covenant with Bnei Yisrael knowing full well what a stiff-necked disobedient people they would be. But Israel is His choice, even when we err and are disobedient. In Deuteronomy 1:31 Moshe reminded the people, “in the wilderness … you saw how ADONAI your God carried you as a man carries his son, everywhere you went.” Moshe could well have added a postscript, “even when you grumbled and complained, made a molten calf, and doubted the promises of Hashem, He carried you.” Today in remembrance of His carrying, in remember of His forbearance on our behalf, we sit in the sukkah for seven days. During this time of the year we are reminded of the transitory status of our existence and in that of Hashem’s love and care for each of us – in spite of our shortcomings and failings. Though we said the following blessing the first night as we entered the sukkah, as well as other times in the year, maybe it should be on our heart and lips daily in remembrance of His care for us each and every day.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֲינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזּמַן הַזֵּה.
Blessed are You, ADONAI our God, King of the universe, has kept us alive,
sustained us, and brought us to this season.