March 20th, 2014

Two things have profoundly disturbed me these past couple of weeks, both for the same reason.

The first has been the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Whether it was hijacked and spirited away, or it has crashed somewhere, and will yet be found, is actually not the most disturbing aspect of this crazy story.

What seems absolutely incredible, in an age where everything and anything can be seen at all times by some form of electronic surveillance, is the fact that a full size airliner can disappear in broad daylight, so to speak – and no one seems to know where it went or how this happened.

It almost seems irrelevant if the plane is eventually found. The mere fact that this could happen with no explanation exposes a vulnerability that we had thought was confined to history.

We have, it would seem, been deluded into believing that science and technology, even if not able to prevent tragedy, can at least track and trace it, so that we can always know what has happened when tragedy strikes. Suddenly we realize that we are much more vulnerable than we thought.

The second thing that disturbed me deeply was Russia’s stance in the Ukrainian crisis.

I will not venture an opinion as to the relative merits of Russian or Ukrainian control over the Crimean peninsula. What actually disturbs me is the ease with which Russia has essentially annexed a significant piece of European territory, using political and military techniques that bring to mind Nazi Germany of the late 1930s.

Most remarkably, the ‘powerful’ governments who have protested seem unable to stop it from happening. This, too, exposes a vulnerability that we had long thought was gone.

Surely, the combined might of the United States and its western allies would never permit such brazen expansionism, particularly by a vanquished foe. Suddenly we realize that we are much more vulnerable than we thought.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of the moment that God’s presence took up residence, as it were, in the wilderness sanctuary, the Mishkan (Lev. 9:6):

וַיֹאמֶר מֹשֶה זֶה הַדָבָר אֲשֶר צִוָה ה’ תַעֲשׂוּ וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְבוֹד ה

“Moses said: this is the thing that God commanded you to do, so that the glory of God will appear to you….”

The Midrash is puzzled that the ‘thing’ mentioned in Moses’ statement is not specified, and offers a suggestion as to what it refers to.

The greatest hazard facing the founding fathers of monotheistic faith was the concept that God was not tangible. It was this desire for tangibility that had led them to create a Golden Calf, and even now, having built the Mishkan as penance for that sin, they crowded forward, eager to glimpse, to somehow sense, the presence of God.

So Moses explained to them that they had got it wrong. The human desire to physically sense everything is based on a human weakness that requires, even demands, certainty. If something is there, right in front of us, then we can believe in it.

The allure of idol worship is based on our attraction to objects or realities that we know are there for us to see and hear and feel and smell. But it is this that prevents us from getting close to God.

In order for God to appear to us, we must understand that He will never appear to us. That feeling of security engendered by certainty drives a wedge between us and God. In fact, nothing is certain, and we are vulnerable.

Perhaps these two events, and other similarly alarming events over recent years, should wake us up to the fact that our perception of certainty is nothing less than a Golden Calf.

Of course those who formed the Golden Calf believed in God; only weeks before they had encountered Him at Mount Sinai. And certainly those who created the Mishkan believed in God.

Nevertheless they remained human, as do we, and sought certainty, when in fact that certainty was the very thing they needed to discard, so that the glory of God could appear to them.

Life is uncertain, we are vulnerable, and that knowledge will bring us closer to God.

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