A Love Made of Nothing


Candlelighting, Readings:

Candles: 6:47 p.m.

Torah: Ex. 30:11-34:35; Num. 19:1-22

Haftorah: Ezekiel  36:16-38

Havdalah: 7:47 p.m.

Does God love everyone equally, or does He have favorites? Judging from His declaration in this week’s reading, favorites it is. After the Golden Calf, God relents from destroying all of Israel only through the intervention of Moses. God reserves the right to give preference to special individuals, such as Moses.

The Ishbitzer, a chasidic rebbe, says that chen, or grace, is a free gift, deriving from the Hebrew word chinom, or nothing; a favor granted regardless of personal merit. To receive such a present, says the Ishbitzer, certain individuals, among whom Moses is paramount, are innately imprinted with specific traits.

What qualities would make God single out individuals for such favor? Moses, “more modest than any man” [Numbers 12:3] and struggling with a speech impediment, has the courage to speak in defense of Israel, talking back to God “as a man talks to his friend.” Not for a moment does Moses consider God’s offer to choose him and his progeny as a replacement for the Chosen People; selflessly, Moses is prepared to sacrifice his own life for theirs. “And now,” says Moses to God, “if you can bear with [Israel’s] sin, well and good; otherwise, blot me out of Your book … and if I really have found favor in Your eyes … see that this nation is Yours” [Exodus 33:13]. Under the pretext of consolidating his own special relationship with God, Moses attempts to reinstate the Jewish people in God’s graces. Moses and his people are one; there is no competition.

Because Moses’ petition is not for his own benefit but for the nation’s, God acquiesces, seemingly for the sake of Moses, the individual, “because you have found favor in My sight.” Only then does Moses slip in what appears to be a personal request: “Show me Your glory!” According to Rashi, Moses wants to understand the workings of Divine justice, the problem of suffering. God complies. God then passes before him in all His fullness, calling out the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: “Repaying the iniquity of the fathers upon the children … until the third and the fourth generations. But their loving kindness I will remember until the thousandth generation.”

We may quail at the seemingly unjust transfer of punishment to “innocent” children. But Moses, more in tune with the spiritual implications of God’s two-fold invocation of His newly revealed Name of compassion, reacts differently. He prostrates himself with gratitude. Repeating His mode of conduct in relation to the world under the name “All-Merciful,” God demonstrates how the same source of grace Israel has found through Moses for the sin of the Golden Calf has been extended to them in all generations to come. By invoking the revealed Name, Israel may now enjoy the same favorable relationship that Moses does. Through the devotion of Moses, all this has been given.

This sublime parsha is always read near Purim, apparently possessing commonalities with the story of Esther. In both texts, we’re confronted with genocide. The Megillah includes a government plot to exterminate the Jewish people, before a last-minute rescue through an orphaned daughter of the oppressed nation. Esther’s charm came from inner-beauty transcending appearance. A Midrash tells us that she was nicknamed Hadassah because she was “sallow as a myrtle.” But she “elicited grace.” “A thread of kindness… connecting her directly with the Holy One” is why she moved the hearts of the king and his people [Megilla 13a]. This same chen linking Moses and Esther serves as a connection between Megillat Esther and Ki Tissa. Both protagonists are without ego, ready to give their lives for the Jewish people. As quiet and modest as they are, when the time comes to speak out, they are imbued with strength. Whereas Ki Tissa celebrates the revelation of a new name and a relationship between God and His people, we find no mention at all of God’s name in the Megillah. In Esther, however, whose name means “hiddenness,” a direct link is established between her grace and absence of ego and the hidden presence of God working through her.

When it was her turn to go before the king, she was entitled to ask for anything. She asked for nothing. Because she asked for nothing, says a Midrash, she was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Megillah says she stripped herself of the sackcloth and signs of mourning she had worn in prayer and robed herself in malchut (royalty); a feminine term, in mystical language, for Divine sovereignty. Still another Midrash says she “clothed herself with love for the Jewish people.”

The Ishbitzer explains that souls of such magnanimity serve as garments of the Most High, projecting His chen on the world stage. While we may understand that Esther donned royal garb, as the situation demanded, this suggests that in our world, the Divine Presence robes itself in the guise of certain majestic but unassuming individuals.

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” (Amazon and Kindle).