After the Sinai Covenant, Moses goes to Mount Sinai. He does not tell the Children of Israel how long he will be gone, perhaps he did not know, and the waiting weighs on the people. Moses lingers for forty days. The waiting challenges the Children of Israel, and their anxiety turns them upon Aharon: they demand that he creates a golden calf, another god who would lead them in the desert.
What is the symbolic meaning of the golden calf? The all-too-human need to cling to something tangible. After the spiritual experience of the Sinai Covenant, the return to the daily routine and the impermanence of reality is unbearable. We seek something tangible, safe, shiny and real… a golden calf that is an illusion. The Children of Israel wish to cling to something real to fend off the fear they experience when left alone, without their leader, without God.
Moses finds out about the people’s faithlessness while he is still on Mount Sinai. After having spent forty days he descends from the mountain and the descent is from the heights of heaven into the abyss of hell. Moses reacts harshly and violently to the people’s deviation: he breaks the Tablets, destroys the golden calf, calls to the sons of Levi, “Whoso is on the LORD’S side, let him come unto me,” and instructs them to slay all the idolaters.
Moses’ sense of transcendence is broken like the Tablets. He succumbs to isolation and loneliness, what spiritual traditions call “the dark night of the soul.” Moses turns to God in his anguish and despair: “show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight.” The request is a cry of a human who feels he lost the grace of God.
God’s reply to Moses is challenging: “Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live… and thou shalt stand upon the rock. And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
Thou canst not see my face. The human and the divine cannot meet. Just like in the story of the four who entered a grove, seeing the divine causes human death or madness. The human cannot fully bear the presence of the divine. If God is the universe, we can infer that humans can only see a partial image of reality.
God places Moses in the crevice of the rock. A hollow womb-like place, in which Moses’ consciousness is reborn. If God is time human beings can only grasp time’s “back,” that is the end results of a chain of occurrences in reality. We humans are incapable of seeing the big picture, nor the onset of a chain of occurrences, nor the essence of reality: “thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
In the poem “For Courage,” John O’Donohue offers a somewhat different perspective on the dark night of the soul, the frightening experience of loneliness and losing one’s way. O’Donohue suggests we should not fear the darkness, because fear stems from the thought that darkness is threatening. Our willingness to place ourselves in the hand of the universe, “I will cover thee with My hand,” and allow reality to unfold, not resisting the darkness, but rather learning to see in a new way, “it will school your eyes, To find the one gift your life requires Hidden within this night-corner,” is the way to be free of fear and connected with the eternal.
When the light around lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.
Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.
Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!
~ John O’Donohue, For Courage
Feature Photo by Fernando Dearferdo