Exodus Close But Not Quite, Near Yet Still Far
Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1–24:18)
After about eight months of not seeing my 96-year-old grandmother and still deep in the pandemic without a clear end in sight, my wife and I decided we couldn’t afford to let another six months go by without a visit. We loaded our two small kids into the car and drove the five hours from DC to the Bronx in order to see my grandmother.
We stood outside with her, at a distance, yelling to be heard over a fierce wind, over our masks, over old age. After about 15 minutes, we left. She went inside to eat the bagel we had brought her and we headed to a hotel to stay the night, before we drove back to DC the following day.
We could get all the way to the Bronx, all the way to her apartment building, but, due to COVID, we had to stand outside with her. That was as close as we could get. For her sake, for our sake, we were separated by masks and distance, a boundary that had to be respected and enforced. It was a visit that was close but not quite. Near yet still far.
At the end of this week’s parsha, after God lays out a system of holiness and the rules that are meant to govern civil society, God offers Moses a seemingly contradictory set of instructions. God tells Moses that he, Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, along with the 70 elders, should come up God’s mountain. But, soon after, God cautions that only Moses should actually approach God. The others must hang back, bowing to God from afar (Exodus 24:1-2). The elders are invited to draw near to God, ascending to God’s place, but they can only come so close. They must keep their distance. Close but not quite. Near yet still far.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, an 18th century Hasidic thinker from Poland, teaches on our parsha that this is what it means to know God—to simultaneously hold both aspects of God’s being—God’s nearness and God’s distance. God is, at once, karov (close) and rahok (far). God is far in that God is the force that precedes all creation; God’s very existence is beyond our comprehension. And God is near in that God’s presence fills the entire world; there is no aspect of our lives from which God is not present.
The question of God’s nearness and farness, this close-but-not-quite relationship, is also the subject of a passage in Massekhet Sukkah, in which the rabbis discuss the minimum height of a sukkah. The reason, the rabbis teach, why the minimum height of a sukkah is 10 tefahim (about three feet) is that above 10 tefahim is God’s domain and below 10 tefahim is the domain of human beings. It is at this boundary height of 10 tefahim that we may approach God, that we may dwell with God, in this close-but-not-quite, near-yet-still-far liminal space of our sukkah.
After establishing the separate domains of human beings and God, the Talmud asks in a rhetorical surprise: could it really be that God never descends to the domain of human beings, crossing below the threshold of 10 tefahim, and that no human beings ever ascended to the domain of God? Surely, there must be some occasion upon which these domains are crossed and we can be close with God and God is close with us. After bringing verse upon verse as proof in which either Moses clearly ascends to God or God clearly descends to the domain of human beings, the Talmud ultimately reaffirms this separation between human beings and God and essentially says, “Yes. This is just how it is. There’s the space of God and the space of human beings.” We can get close but not quite. We can approach, but we will also be held at a distance. Near Yet Still Far.
I wonder why is it so important for the rabbis in Massekhet Sukkah to insist on the separate domains of human beings and God, on this boundary of 10 tefahim that can never be crossed? Why are the 70 elders invited to ascend God’s mountain, to draw near yet still stay at a distance? What does it mean, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev suggests, to hold God as at once near and far?
I want to offer two answers. One: perhaps, sometimes, boundaries are necessary. Boundaries protect us. There can be an intimacy in relationships that is too intimate, a crossing of boundaries that might be too vulnerable or perhaps even dangerous. There may be something to be said for respecting these boundaries, for accepting the sweetness of adjacency, of being close but not quite, while honoring the distance that protects us.
COVID forced this close-but-not-quite upon us, teaching us a lot about boundaries that cannot be crossed. We have discovered, or attempted to discover, new ways of being in relationships, of achieving some sense of intimacy with our loved ones, while being separated by a boundary—sometimes invisible and other times quite visible. We were challenged to get as close as we could while understanding that boundaries were there to protect us. Sometimes we can’t see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:18-23). There is a time and a place for distance and protection.
Or, a second answer: perhaps the rabbis insist that there are two separate domains—close but not quite—because this is just the reality of the world; this reflects the lived religious experience of many of us. We may want to cross over to God’s domain; we may long to see God’s face and experience the immediacy and closeness of a relationship with God, but for some of us, that will not or cannot be our reality. There may be an occasional moment of drawing near, a feeling of being in God’s presence, but for most moments of our lives, God may feel just out of reach. Close but not quite. Near and yet far.
Perhaps, the 70 elders in our parsha model for us what it means to be in a relationship with God that holds both God’s nearness and God’s distance. We can approach God’s mountain, we can even sometimes draw near, yet we must bow from afar. Perhaps, they are teaching us that it is okay if you don’t feel like you are in God’s presence all of the time or that you don’t feel that God is in yours. That longing is okay. We have to learn to accept and even embrace what it means to be in a relationship of close but not quite, near yet still far.