"You speak to us,” [the Israelites] said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)
On her fantastic debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett sings my favorite line from 2015: I want to go out but I want to stay home. As she repeats this chorus, over pounding drums and driving guitar riff, throughout her song, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Part,” we, the listeners, feel the weight of her ambivalence as our own. We, too, very often want conflicting things.
This is certainly true for the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. Assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, they implore Moses for an audience with God—yet when their request is granted and God begins to speak to them, they immediately turn and run away. They seek the Divine Presence—but as soon as it is manifest, they flee from it, begging Moses to stand in their stead.
Because like Courtney Barnett—and us—the Israelites are wracked by ambivalence. They simultaneously desire contraries: presence and absence, independence and interdependence, freedom and obligation, solitude and community, the holy and the mundane. Thus they remind us that life is complicated, that our yearnings are ever-shifting, our courage ephemeral, and our intentions and motivations deeply mixed.
The Israelites’ complex response to divine revelation therefore challenges us to recognize that we, too, are often terrified when we get what we want and work towards, because we recognize that such experiences irrevocably change us, and significant change is almost always deeply challenging—even when we know it is ultimately for the best.
This week, consider: When do you resist what you also desire—and why? How do you respond when God calls—when you want to go out and you want to stay home?