A different perspective on crises of faith

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.


Crises in faith — we all have them at one time or another. Each of us can become overwhelmed by life and what it often brings to us when we have other plans. These crises can come from many different sources — the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a difficult diagnosis, a problematic relationship or a natural disaster, to name but a few. How do we deal with these crises when they occur? What does our Jewish tradition teach us?

In this week’s Torah portion, God, Moses and the Israelites each have their own overwhelming crisis. For the people it is Moses’ apparent tarrying on the mountain past the time when they expected him to descend. This caused them to panic with the thought that he had left them alone in the wilderness without leadership. Their response, though inappropriate, was intended to remedy the situation based on their experience in Egypt rather than on their experience since leaving Mitzrayim (Egypt). They replaced Moses and God with an image of a calf overlaid in gold and declared it to be their “god.”

Moses’ crisis was precipitated by returning to the base of the mountain and seeing the people engaged in an orgiastic worship of this golden calf. In frustration and anger he threw down the tablets containing the words of the Covenant that had been crafted during those long days and nights at the top of the mountain, smashing them into pieces. God, too, seemingly in crisis mode also, declared that due to their behavior, these people would be destroyed then and there and that Moses and his family would become the new Israel, as it were. Only due to Moses’ defense of the people before God were they spared complete destruction.

Though Moses was successful in convincing God to spare the people, his crisis was not over. He questioned his preparation for this arduous task of leading the people to the Promised Land safely and his knowledge base crucial to teaching them how to be in relationship with God. He demanded a face-to-face with God to remedy this situation.

Moses’ request for a face-to-face with God received a counter offer on the part of God. God would agree to reveal more to Moses, but it would be only God’s back, not face, that Moses would be able to view and live to tell the tale. Moses was placed in the cleft of a rock and was able to “see” God only after God had passed by him; he could only experience God from behind.

Was this enough to take Moses out of crisis mode? Apparently this and the comforting words that God brought of forgiveness and of mercy along with justice were enough. However, there is an important lesson in Moses’ seeing God from behind that speaks to each and every one of us when we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis.

This passage teaches us that we experience God only after a crisis has passed, only in retrospect can we recognize the role that God has played in any situation in which we have been intimately involved. At the moment of crisis, we are too preoccupied with ourselves and the crisis itself to be able to see God. When we have the opportunity to look back on an experience, it is then that we are able to gain perspective and find the meaning and God in it. We are able to see God afterwards; we can only see God from the back.

An example—there are many people who have remarked following an emergency involving acute and severe illness that looking back on the experience, they see that it is God telling them to slow down, to take better care of themselves or to exercise more. As human beings are meaning seekers, inevitably we are able to put a crisis into perspective with the rest of our life experience and to see God in it all.

Crises of faith are natural occurrences. Our tradition through this week’s Torah portion encourages us to be patient and to wait until the crisis has passed to offer comfort to those in crisis or to seek the meaning of a crisis in our own lives. Moses was able to see God’s back as his crisis passed. So may we!