Do we need tangible connections to an invisible God

Kee Tissa
Exodus 30:11-34:35
Numbers 19:1-22
Ezekiel 36:16-38

This year I find myself puzzled by the way we tend to scoff at the Israelites. We speak of them in superior tones, judging how three days after Sinai they began to kvetch about water and food.

We disparage those who, encamped at the foot of the mountain, succumbed to terror when Moses failed to return. We explain, with condescension, that their souls were debased by slavery and oppression; otherwise their faith would surely have been stronger.

In this same tradition, the Zohar says that at Sinai, the people of Israel were ready to have the Shechinah poured into them, without any intermediary. They would serve as vessels for the Divine Presence directly, without concrete containers or symbols. Only after the sin of the Golden Calf did it become necessary for God to direct the construction of a desert mishkan/sanctuary, “that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8, cited in “The Language of Truth,” p. 117-8)

The Israelites were ready to become containers for the infinite Divine Presence? How could this be? How could a human community imagine that it could be so spiritually perfect, so immune to normal human difficulties, that it could be in pure, constant contact with the Divine?

I found an ancient rabbinic midrash that, in a way, contains a much more human account of what happened. The midrash imagines that at noon on the 40th day, the day on which Moses had promised to return with the Torah, Satan came and produced a vision of Moses lying stretched out dead on a bier that floated midway between earth and heaven. Only then did the Israelites demand that a calf be built as a focus for prayer. (Louis Ginzberg, “Legends of the Jews,” volume 3, p. 120)

We might simply say that the people were terrified that Moses had died, leaving them with no tangible connection to the invisible God who was to be their guide and protector on their journey. Struck senseless with fear, grasping for a concrete, visible source of comfort and guidance, they asked for a statue to give them something to focus on, as an orientation point for their community of faith.

What if it had been us? Would we have done otherwise?

Every day people come to talk with me about how difficult it is to sustain awareness of the Holy, the Mystery, the All-That-Is, of God. So many things interfere with the very fragile ability of the human soul to open itself to awe. Fear may be the most powerful force that may obscure our vision of the whole of life, the big picture, a spirit-filled perspective.

So, too, in times of anger, how many of us can remember that none of this day’s concerns are that important, that all of us are finite creatures struggling to make the best of this life before we someday die? Frequently doubt and skepticism (doubt in ourselves, skepticism about God, about the goodness of life) may interfere with our ability to recognize the Source of All in all we do. And of course, self-imposed busyness, and the stresses of family life, may block our genuine desire to live in relationship with that which is far greater than ourselves.

This year I empathize with the newly liberated Israelites, traumatized by their recent experiences, utterly without moorings, wandering in dangerous terrain with only periodic guidance from an invisible God — asking for concrete aids in their worship. How could it have been otherwise?

At the peak moments of our lives, when our hearts are wide open to wonder and truth, we may be able to take in the Holy without any concrete forms, letting our hearts speak and listen directly. But in ordinary times, and certainly in hard times, we need religious forms: time-honored words of prayer and sacred actions, holy cycles of time, and the presence of spiritual community, to encourage us to recognize the sacred in all things.

Perhaps God knew all along that the Israelites would need forms to aid in their religious development. Certainly we do. May we trust that the Torah gives us exactly what we need, so we may never need to seek distorted substitutes for what is true.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at