Taking our own paths of spiritual discovery to experience the Divine

Exodus 21:1-24:18

Exodus 30:11-16

Kings II 12:1-17

It has been nearly 30 years since Italian climber Reinhold Messner, often described as one of the greatest mountaineers in history, successfully completed the first-ever solo ascent of Mount Everest. Not only that, he did it without the use of the supplemental oxygen tanks that until then were assumed to be absolutely necessary for any person braving such high altitudes. The record books state that no human being had ever gone that high alone on foot.

Altitudinally speaking, they are correct, but Messner may in fact have been beaten out millennia earlier by a man with a similar-sounding name: Moses. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe ascends Mount Sinai. The mountain itself is smaller physically than anything found in the Himalayas and requires neither ice picks nor oxygen tanks, but Moshe’s true climb is to the heavens. And he does it alone.

It is HaShem who is responsible for making Moshe’s ascent into a solo climb, specifically directing that “Moshe alone will ascend” (24:2). But why is this necessary? Why not share the experience and the higher degrees of revelation with fellow scholars and top students?

While Rashi offers no insights into the issue here, there is a comment buried in his presentation 19 chapters earlier that addresses the question head-on. At the end of Chapter 4, the text states that Moshe set off to face Pharaoh for the first time with Aharon and all the elders of Israel. Then in 5:1, it mentions only Moshe and Aharon arriving at the palace to face the ruler of Egypt and demand the release of his Jewish slaves. What happened to the elders?

Rashi explains that on the way, the elders dropped out one by one in fear and left Moshe and Aharon to go it alone. As a result, when it came time to face the HaShem on Mount Sinai, they were not invited to join. Only those who went to face the King of Egypt would get the privilege of facing the King Above on High.

But take a closer look: The pieces don’t fit! According to Rashi’s explanation, the elders drop away but leave Moshe accompanied in his visit to Pharaoh by his devoted brother Aharon. Yet in our weekly reading it is clear that Moshe goes up the mountain alone, without his beloved and supportive older sibling. Why is Aharon also being punished? Why isn’t he allowed to ascend?

Perhaps Aharon’s absence is not a punishment, as it was for the elders. Rather, just as they modeled different forms of leadership, Moshe and Aharon were different kinds of people who found HaShem in different ways.

In so many ways, Moshe was the mystic who experienced the Divine up on the mountain and in the clouds. For him it was the ascent out of this world that led to the connection with the Infinite.

But not everyone finds HaShem “up there”; there are other spiritual types and paths as well. In his book titled “Seeing God,” my dear and beloved teacher Rabbi David Aaron points out that there are many ways to see and experience HaShem’s presence in the world. Every time we gaze out at the sunset, listen to the breathing of sleeping children, absorb the performance of a symphony or look up through the forest canopy we are glimpsing a bit of HaShem’s presence in this world.

Unlike his younger brother, Aharon experienced the Divine in being in the world and with people. Described by Pirkei Avot as the one who “loved humanity,” Aharon could recognize the deep beauty of the Divine Presence in all those around him. Although he could have joined Moshe in his climb to the summit, he simply didn’t need that. Aharon stayed behind to teach us that one need not necessarily leave this world to soar in the heavens; we just need to open our eyes.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].