With seders under our belt, matzah in our stomachs and redemption on the way, I am always intrigued by the passage that we read on the intermediate Shabbat of Passover. You see that first Passover was so challenging for everyone. Having gone through the false promises of Pharaoh, the nine plagues that showed God’s might and finally that 10th plague when children would die, our ancestors celebrated Passover in haste even as they packed their meager belongings to start their journey toward a better tomorrow.
And then, of course, after making it through the sea and coming to Mount Sinai, their eagerness to have God in their lives takes the better of them as they
find themselves thrusting their wealth and their most beloved possessions into a cauldron so that an idol can appear from it. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the ETERNAL!” (Exodus 32:4-5) They so wanted to know God’s essence and to be in God’s presence that they immediately reverted to idolatry despite the fact that the Torah gifted them the commandment to not create idols — to know that God is with us in ephemeral and not physical ways.
And where was Moses during that time? Of course, he was on the mountain in the actual presence of God. But he, too, was not satisfied with just knowing about God; he insisted that God must reveal God’s self. Our teacher Moses stated it as an ultimatum. “And he said to God, ‘Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15)
Can you believe it? The God, who is intangible, agreed to this condition. Moses was about to see God. …“And the ETERNAL said to Moses, ‘I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.’ Moses said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence!’ And God answered, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name ETERNAL, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.’ (Exodus 33:17-19)
Just when we think that God is going to reveal God’s self in this incredibly personal and visual way, just as we can imagine that Moses was ecstatic that no longer would he have to only know God as a voice in a bush but actually as a figure to be seen, did God pull the rug out from under Moses’ reality. “‘But,’ God said, ‘you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.’ And the LORD said, ‘See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.’” (Exodus 33:20-23)
I’m wondering if any of us are like Moses. At times of personal challenge, we want to see God’s face in the midst of our journey. I know that I want to. But then I realize that is just sometimes not possible. Reading the 19th-century German Chattam Sofer, I take a little bit of comfort:
A period of time can only be understood once we are able to view the entire context of an event. In the same way, we are only able to comprehend God’s ways and recognize how God works in retrospect. … But at the time that the event itself is happening, our understanding is unable to grasp God’s doing. Instead, we are simply astonished and mystified. This is the real meaning of: “You will see My back…”
There are times when I want to see God through the “windshield of my car,” aware that God is in front of me, guiding me and helping me journey down the road of life. However, this passage from Torah, which comes in the midst of our redemption journey through the desert, reminds us that no matter how much we imagine that the journey to the promised land was one full of faith, one in which God was in the windshield of our ancestors, that all too often in life we can only see God in the rear-view mirror.
The Israelites at the bottom of the mountain and Moses at the top all wanted to have God in front of them. The Israelites made the mistake of forcing the issue with an idol and paid severely for it. Moses accepted the best he could get, seeing God’s back, understanding God’s impact when all is said and done. If it was good enough for Moses, it must be good enough for us. PJC
Rabbi Ron Symons is the senior director of Jewish Life and the director of the Center for Loving Kindness at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.