I recently gave a workshop on listening to some college resident advisers, who often have other students on their hall come talk to them. To practice listening, the students split into pairs, and they each had a chance to tell a story to their partner, while the partner listened.
Afterwards, many of the students said it was hard. They felt self-conscious, or undeserving of attention. They were not in the habit of sharing themselves because, I suspect, they live in a culture where we are not in the habit of listening. It takes courage to be vulnerable in front of those whom we fear may judge us, or whom may not be listening. Listening is an intimate act.
Our Torah portion this week describes a stunning moment of intimacy between Moses and God. This intimacy is reached, in part, because of Moses’ willingness to share his vulnerability with God. The moment comes on the heels of the drama and anger of the golden calf incident.
The people have betrayed both Moses and God by building and worshiping an idol. Moses is so angry when he comes down the mountain that he breaks the tablets he has just received and encourages the Levites to kill their kin; God sends a plague on the people and declares that an angel will accompany them through the desert — they will no longer be accompanied by God.
When Moses next speaks to God, he shares his doubts. “See, you say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but you have not made known to me whom You will send with me … pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You.” (Exodus 33:12-13) Moses expresses not doubt in God, but doubt in himself as a leader. Will he be able to lead the people without God in their midst? Is he still in God’s good graces? Moses seeks reassurance, and to get it, he shares with God how scared and unsure he feels.
God hears Moses’ distress and responds to his doubts. “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.” (Exodus 33:14) God will accompany them rather than the angel after all. God continues to affirm God’s love for Moses: “I have singled you out by name.”(Exodus 33:17). It is then, once Moses is assured that God is with him, that he asks for an even greater intimacy from God — he asks to see God’s Presence. God responds by agreeing to pass before Moses, but tenderly protecting him at the same time “for man may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
Rashi imagines this moment of God showing Moses God’s presence as a moment when God teaches Moses the order of the prayers, so that Moses may teach the children of Israel. God says: “When they call Me ‘compassionate and gracious’ they will be answered, for My compassion is inexhaustible.” Prayer is offered as the moment when people can always be vulnerable, and God offers Godself as an eternal and compassionate listener. We can share our doubts with God, invoking God’s compassion and grace.
This need not occur only in prayer. When we listen to each other this way, with compassion, and when we share with each other this way — with openness and vulnerability — something holy can happen. We are imitating Moses and God, and it is in these moments that we are shown a glimpse of God’s presence among us. May we all become compassionate listeners, and vulnerable sharers.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected] .