When I arrived in Los Angeles, I dove right in to the Jewish leg of my religious explorations by walking into synagogues at the appropriate times. Carrying out my goal of reconnecting with old pals was a bit trickier. Lisa, my friend who had acted as a lifeline to the old gang, tried to get everyone to meet up after the sun set on my first Sabbath. She sent out a group email and made reservations at a restaurant on Main Street. Becky and Deb replied that they couldn’t come, but Nina RSVP’d she’d try to make it.

Of all my high school buddies, I was surprised Nina’s the only one to accept as ours was always the relationship with the most friction. At times we acted like we were in a battle for who could be the biggest jerk. Last we had gotten together, 15 years earlier, she had stormed out. Her mother had died of cancer a year or so earlier and she seemed to be milking some residual neediness that irked me. Everything I said and did that afternoon communicated that I would not indulge her emotional fragility. When she scooped up her car keys and fled, I was officially the valor in our little war. We hadn’t spoken since—not even when her boyfriend was killed a few years ago.

Thinking about the afternoon I last saw Nina, I feel the hot burn of shame. What had she needed from me? To be hugged and fussed over a bit? Could I not offer my friend these small gestures of comfort? No, I couldn’t; as I see now, I was too terrified. I could not fathom that Nina’s mother had gone from vibrant to dead in a matter of weeks, the brain tumor that first made itself apparent on a trip to Israel, of all places—when her disorganized thinking alarmed her travel companions—metastasizing uncontrollably seemingly overnight. It was like Nina was a balloon and her mother had been her tether to the ground. After her mother’s death, Nina seemed to float aimlessly. I didn’t want this tragedy to be something that could happen and, if it had to be, I wanted proof that a speedy recovery was possible. I needed Nina to be regular Nina, not devastated Nina. I was so desperate for her to be okay that I refused to reach out and pull her to earth, even for a few moments.

I’ve beat myself up about it. I could not be there for my friend because I could not get past my own fear and anger. It’s no different from what motivated the behavior of the people Moses left at the base of Mount Sinai. They were terrified at having been left alone, so they reached for the quick-fix to soothe their anxiety. They did this forbidden thing because they were only human. After his initial fury, Moses calms down. He understood because he was human too. God is less sympathetic. He wants to smite them all and start over with a fresh group of people. Moses talks him out of this rage. New people would have the same faults. Moses comes back down from the mountain with another set of commandments; the people get a do-over. This list of guidelines from God represents the crux of the faith: behavior, not material things, should be your source of comfort. Your actions, doing the right thing, what you think and feel as you interact with others and the world around you, these are what God cares about; this is all anyone can know for sure. As I waited to see if Nina would actually show, I nervously hoped for my own little do-over.

The pain

“This is a critical juncture in the history of Jewish identity,” the rabbi says in his talk after the day’s Torah portion. “The foundation of Judaism, monotheism, is tested.” I’m at a reformed synagogue in Santa Monica housed in a plain, square building. In high school, I used to drive past it regularly on my way to my friend Becky’s house. Inside, the atmosphere is laid back. Only a handful of people have come to formally celebrate Sabbath.

The exact Torah section we read begins at Exodus 32.

The crowd Moses has led to freedom is freaking out. Moses promised to return from his mountain-top meeting with God in 40 days, but now those days have come and gone. The rabbi explains that more than likely Moses wasn’t really late, that it was probably a misunderstanding—the people had started counting the days at sunrise while Moses was counting them according to sunsets, something like that. Either way, collectively, the people enter the throes of a classic panic attack, their anxiety like a runaway train. If they couldn’t trust Moses, then maybe the God who helped them escape wasn’t reliable.

To stop from spiraling out of control, they revert back to what they know: worshipping something they can see and touch—an “idol.” The invisible one-God idea is too scary. They melt down all their jewelry and shape it into a calf, giving them something on which to focus their energy. Soothed by the certainty and solidity of the object, their anxiety subsides. Of course, at that exact moment, Moses returns.

Moses is furious. It’s not so much the idol itself that makes him angry as what it represents.

Before monotheism, people were accountable only to those who shared their gods; it was considered a crime to steal from members of one’s own tribe, while stealing from other tribes afforded you a hero’s welcome. One God introduced the concept of a unified humanity, making everyone connected—the entire world as a single tribe of people derived from the same source. To create an object to worship is to break apart the one-God idea. It might seem a small fissure, but it challenges the very essence of monotheism. It shatters the possibility of a unified humanity and, perhaps to make this exact point, Moses throws down the stone tablets with the commandments from God and they break into pieces.

The rabbi slows down. In his talk about the Torah section, he wants to make an important point about the human condition. He says that when we are faced with ambiguity, we tend to default to anger, depression, or fear. The one-God idea comes strapped with a degree of ambiguity—there can be no proof, nothing concrete to touch—as illustrated a few sections further along in Exodus when Moses’ request to see God’s face is denied. So the very thing we hope will alleviate our anxiety inevitably leaves some intact. “This pain,” the rabbi says, “is written into the human condition.” If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith. If you learn to trust it, you can swap being a part of something small for being a part of something infinitely vast. Here is the key: to bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution. The rabbi puts a finger in the air and offers a sly smile that suggests he’s sharing the simplest and most profound of secrets. “The pain,” he says, “is the opening for the divine.”

Baby Moses

I remember the baby in a basket, sailing down a river. The entire movie about Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt and how the Ten Commandments came to be, and all I recall is that tiny floating baby. I was about eight when it was set to air. I was staying the night with my mom’s parents and I felt a buzz of anticipation to have a date that evening with my grandparents in front of the television.

As show time approached, I was belly down on the carpet. Fresh martinis clinked from the sofa behind me.

My excitement soon drooped like the saggy robes worn by the characters on screen, kicked away like the dust from their sandaled feet. The entire thing looked so old-timey and weird. What was this stupid story? Once the baby got old and grew a beard, I lost interest and wandered out of the room.

But the first few moments of the film are seared into my memory.The scene, as I recollect, goes like this: a woman sets her basket/baby into the river and lets it float away. The pained expression on her face reveals the difficulty of her decision. The baby will most likely drown but she deems this option safer than the baby staying with her. She’ll take the risk for the slim chance of the baby’s survival. Several frames focus on the baby up close, chubby and oblivious. The baby doesn’t have long; the basket is no better than a sieve. I was riveted; I had such high hopes for this movie. A woman standing at the bank downstream spots the basket. That this stranger is big-hearted enough to fish out the baby is almost too good to be true. That she turns out to be royalty and raises the orphan in the palace is the most surprising in the series of unlikely incidents that leads to the baby’s survival. Then the kid grows up in a montage of, like, two minutes and what I deemed the best part is over.

It’s not just me who got hung up on the baby. I’ve since spoken to others who confess that when they were younger and first exposed to the Moses story, the floating baby part captured their imaginations too. It makes me wonder if this aspect of the account resonates so profoundly because it speaks to our own survival stories: each of us here against all odds, the chances of our individual conceptions perhaps even slimmer than those of baby Moses being scooped from a river by a queen. We may not be able to grasp the improbability of our own lives—the chain of events leading to each of us being here too complex to fathom—but in the Moses story, the miracle of survival is writ large.

When I arrive in L.A., the synagogues, who appear to all be on about the same page in their weekly readings of the Torah, are mid-way through Exodus. The rabbis are going over the plot points covered in the movie about Moses and the Ten Commandments that I was too immature to understand. At long last, I get a second chance to discover what’s so great about the grown-up Moses. The first service I attend, we read about the people waiting at the base of Mount Sinai for Moses to return. These are the people who had been slaves in Egypt. Moses leads them to freedom with the guidance of God, who weakens the resolve of the Egyptians through a series of plagues and then parts the Red Sea for a speedy on-foot escape; the waters then flood the Egyptian army. When the people make it to the base of the mountain, Moses tells them to wait patiently while he goes to the peak to meet with God. Sounds straightforward to me, I thought, as the reading concluded. What could go wrong?