Back Story: Ki Tissa 2016
by Adam J. Rosenbaum
Leadoff Questions: Is it worthwhile for us to try to understand God? Is this too great a task to undertake? Or can we be enriched if we understand just a little bit, however minute it might be?
In the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, Moses begs to get closer to God, and perhaps surprisingly, God agrees.
Text: “[Moses] said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence!’ … And Adonai 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 33:18, 21-23)
Commentary #1: “A period of time can only be understood once we are able to view the entire context of events and happenings. In the same way, we are only able to comprehend God’s ways and recognize how God works in the world in retrospect. Only then is it possible to fathom even a little of what God does. But at the time the event itself is happening, our understanding is unable to grasp God’s doing. Instead we are simply astonished and mystified. As we read in Psalm 28:5, ‘For they do not comprehend Adonai’s deeds, the work of God’s hands.’ And this is the real meaning of ‘You will not see my back.’ [It is not referring to God’s body but to our perspective on time itself.] God says, in effect, ‘Only at the end of days will you see and understand Me.’ ‘But My face cannot be seen,’ not while the events themselves are happening, for ‘in the midst of things, you will not be able to see Me.’” – Chatam Sofer
Commentary #2: “Frequently we do not understand the purpose of events in history and in our lives at the time they come to pass. Only afterwards, with the passing of time, do the meaning of these events and the purpose of Providence in bringing them to pass becomes clear to us. This is implied in the Scriptural text: ‘And you shall see achorai (“My back,” but literally, “after Me”). Only after the events have come to pass will you understand the ways of Providence, ufonai (“My face,” but literally, “before Me”). Before the time has passed you will fail to see them.’” – Torat Moshe
Commentary #3: “Moses is not entirely satisfied, because he feels a certain resistance on the part of the Divine. He forcefully demands a concrete sign. … He appears to demand a divine theophany, and God seems to give in. The intercessor has won his case. But God is not entirely happy with this situation. It is not altogether proper for the King of Kings that a mere mortal should outwit Him at the game of logic.” – Yochanan Muffs, Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel
Late-Inning Questions: Both Chatam Sofer and Torat Moshe understand this episode as partially metaphorical, that God’s refusal to reveal God’s whole being is symbolic of our inability to understand all of God’s ways. Yet Muffs seems to take this episode more literally, focusing on God’s partial willingness to display God’s body, at least to Moses.
Given the text and these commentaries, what is the significance of this episode? Do we learn that God is more available to us than originally thought? Or do we see this as an exception, as something that could only happen to Moses, the greatest prophet of all time? Can you imagine an occasion in our lifetime in which God will display God’s back again? Or should we see this only metaphorically, in which God’s plans for the world will become abundantly clear?
On Deck at Emanu-El: I’m excited to announce some of our plans for our Purim celebration on Wednesday, March 23rd. We will be joined by comedian Noah Gardenswartz, a semi-finalist in the most recent season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing”. Noah is an excellent stand-up comic with many unique perspectives to share, including his Jewish upbringing. He will perform after the conclusion of our Megillah reading that night. Our program will also include a Happy Hour and raffle drawings for everyone who brings food to donate to the Kosher Food Pantry. It will be a wonderful opportunity to laugh in the full spirit of Purim!
The Big Inning at the End: The mysterious nature of God even finds its ways in baseball culture. Notably, Hall of Fame umpire (yes, they induct some umpires in the Baseball Hall of Fame) Doug Harvey was nicknamed “God” by big-leaguers who were awestruck by Harvey’s unfailing knowledge of the Major League rulebook. But perhaps Harvey’s powers went beyond this. On the day of his Hall of Fame induction, it was raining on and off in Cooperstown, New York. But the skies were clear when Harvey took the stage. He opined to the crowd, “I’ll be quick. I won’t hold you long. I want you to notice that I stopped the rain.”
I’ve always found the metaphor to “catch His drift” appropriate to describe what Moshe got when “seeing” God’s “back.”