Compiled by Rabbi Sherril Gilbert
In this week’s Torah reading, we are still in intense drama mode. We’ve come out of slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, struggled to make a life for ourselves in the wilderness, and experienced the revelation of Torah at Sinai. But now our leader is missing. Moshe has gone up the mountain and we have no idea when or even if he is coming back.
And so we plead with Moshe’s brother Aaron, the High Priest, and we say,
We feel like we’ve been abandoned and we are scared.
Make for us an idol who can go before us,
something to give us direction and purpose.
And Aaron gathers gold earrings from all the men, women and children among us, and melts the gold to create the statue of a calf. We rejoice, and make offerings, and eat and drink and dance.
Now, when God sees what the people have done, God is furious, and wants to wipe us out. Fortunately, Moshe talks God out of it, and goes to see for himself what was going on. Moshe comes down the mountain, sees us worshiping the golden calf, and goes into a rage. He takes the first set of tablets which God had written, and smashes them on the ground.
After calming down a bit, Moshe meets with the Levites and asks them to help him deal with the spiritual rebellion of the people, as we are in mourning for our broken relationship with God. Moshe goes back up the mountain to speak to God and to intercede on our behalf, saving us from annihilation. The result of this intercession is that we are granted only probation – we have not yet received a full pardon and reconciliation.
And then we learn about the pillar of cloud which descends whenever Moshe enters the Tent of Meeting, where he continues his deep conversations with God, in a spot just outside our encampment.
And here is where we come to one of my favourite scenes in Torah. Moshe has just finished successfully pleading for the sake of the Jewish people, and, taking advantage of that special moment of Divine favour, he makes a very unusual request of God. He says,
Please, let me have a vision of Your Presence.
And God responds,
I will make all My goodness pass before you;
I will proclaim My Name before you…
but you cannot see My face,
for a person cannot see My face and live. [Ex. 33:19-20]
And God offers Moshe a suggestion:
See, you stand over there, on the rock, and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in this little cleft in the rock, and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then, I will take My hand away, and you will be able to see My back; but My face must not be seen.
Now, we know that God doesn’t really have a face, nor a hand with which to shelter Moshe, nor a back which Moshe might see. These are human conceptions. We can’t wrap our minds around the reality of what God is, so we have to visualize God using images we can work with. But what is the point of having these images of God? And what is the reason that we can’t meet God panim al panim, face to face?
There are several explanations. There is a midrash that teaches that Moshe was asking God for an understanding of why evil exists in the world. God’s response was that hindsight is 20/20: as events unfold, it’s not always easy to understand them, but when we look back, they become more clear. This may be when God was saying when God tells Moshe you can see Me from behind, but not from the front.
Or perhaps Moshe was asking God, in the aftermath of the golden calf episode, how Divine judgment works. God responds that God makes decisions not based on strict law alone, but rather on a process that tempers justice with mercy, love, and compassion. When God says You cannot see Me from the front, it may mean that the world could not exist if we were judged with strict judgment alone. Only from the back, only with a balance of kindness and judgment can the world endure.
But my favourite explanation of why Moshe could not see God’s face is this: when God says to Moshe,
You will be able to see My back;
but My face must not be seen,
God is teaching Moshe about the quality of humility, that humility is a fundamental quality of the Divine Essence. I think this may be the deeper meaning of our text. God is saying
I don’t need or want the honour of being seen from the front,
but rather I prefer to be seen modestly, from the back.
As God displays this trait of humility, that could be a lesson for us, who are created in the Divine image, to also attempt to learn this trait of walking humbly in the world.
At the end of the Torah reading, there is another wild scene. Moshe comes down from the mountaintop one more time, and he is carrying the two new tablets that acknowledge the renewal of the covenant between God and the people. And as he descends, he is completely unaware that his face is radiant and shining and that there are these beams of light which are emanating from his face.
There is a midrash (Tanchuma) that explains these beams of light. It says that when Moshe was writing the original tablets which God dictated, there was a little drop of ink left over. God took that drop of leftover ink, rubbed it on Moshe’s head, and it resulted in those beams of light that were shining from his face.
But now we have a theological problem. How could God have leftover anything? Often, in human projects, we have surplus raw materials. So, for example, when we order bricks for a building project, because it is almost impossible to plan the exact number of bricks that we will need, inevitably, we will have extra bricks left over. But when God is preparing to write Torah and God “orders the ink”, so to speak, don’t we imagine that God knows exactly how much ink to order, down to the last drop? So why was there ink left over?
We learn where this “extra” ink comes from in a teaching from the Or HaChaim, a 17th century Torah commentator. In the Book of Numbers, in parashat Beha’alot’cha, Moshe is writing the verse where God testifies that Moshe is the most humble man who ever walked the face of the earth. Moshe, in his pure state of humility, cannot bring himself to write the complete verse.
And so, the Or HaChaim teaches that Moshe decides to leave out a letter, and he writes the word anav – meaning a humble person – without a Yud. He spells it ayin-nun-vav, rather than the way that it is usually written – ayin-nun-yud-vav. God then takes that “leftover” ink that should have been used to write the Yud, and dabs it on Moshe’s forehead, and it becomes the radiant beams of Divine light shining from Moshe’s face.
I think that Moshe’s experience is a good example of the rabbinic teaching that ‘one who flees from honour is pursued by honour’. To his very core, Moshe struggled with writing the accolades about himself – that he was the most humble of all human beings. And so because of his humility and fleeing from honour, he was “pursued” by having an even greater honour given to him.
I wonder if you can relate to any of Moshe’s experiences from our Torah stories. Because I don’t think these passages are only about Moshe. I think they speak to us, too. Moshe wanted to encounter God panim el panim, face to face, presence to Presence, inner essence to inner essence. He ached for this fundamental “I/Thou” connection with God — and who could blame him? Haven’t you ever yearned for some kind of sacred or holy encounter, a radically deep connection with another being at the innermost level?
After Moshe came down from Sinai with his face aglow, the people were afraid, and so he had to cover his radiance with a veil so that he wouldn’t overwhelm everyone. Have you ever had a spiritual encounter, or an experience of prayer, which left you glowing? Where do you think that inner radiance comes from? Do you ever “veil” your light so as not to overwhelm those around you? What do you think might happen if instead you cultivated that light and allowed it to shine?
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face shone with the light of his Divine encounter. Learning how to open to the source of our inner Light and allowing it to shine through us into the world is a powerful spiritual practice. Each breath becomes an instrument of light, inhaling into the center of our hearts, and exhaling with the intention of shining that light, that goodness, into the world. I bless you that you should find the light within yourselves, and find the way to radiate it out so it becomes a blessing to the world.
- Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2011/02/this-weeks-portion-gods-afterimage-and-letting-our-light-shine.html
- The Lessons of Seeing Only God’s Back, By Rabbi Avi Weiss, http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/598/10/
- The Source of Moshe Rabbeinu’s Beams of Glory, adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: Tape # 320, The Melacha of Dyeing, http://www.torah.org/learning/ravfrand/5762/kisisa.html#