One of the most extraordinary images in the Torah appears in this week’s portion. Moshe requests of God: “Show me your glory.” God responds that He cannot be seen by any human being. But, God tells Moshe, “Stand in the cleft of the rock” and “you will see My back, but My face must not be seen” (Exodus 33: 17-23). What does this mean?
The Midrash maintains that Moshe was asking God for an understanding of why there is evil in the world. An especially relevant question, coming as it does after the Jews experienced so much upheaval following their departure from Egypt. God’s response was that as events unfold they cannot be easily understood. Only after an event, often as long as many years later, can one gain a glimpse and comprehend what had occurred. When God tells Moshe he can see Him from behind but not from the front, He may be saying that events can only be understood in hindsight.
Another possibility comes to mind. Perhaps Moshe was asking God for proof of His existence. Moshe may have felt that such proof was needed by Am Yisrael after they rejected God by building the Golden Calf. But such a proof does not exist. After all, if God is God; proof would limit Him. And so God tells Moshe, “You cannot see me from the front” – there is no proof of My existence. Rather, one should concentrate on understanding the characteristics of God, the benevolence of God, the kindness of God. These are the characteristics that are symbolized by God telling Moshe He can be seen from the back.
Still another approach is that Moshe was asking God, especially after the Jews were punished for having built the Golden Calf, how Divine judgment works. God’s response is that decisions are based not on strict law but on law tempered with justice with mercy.
“You cannot see me from the front” may mean that the world could not exist if God judged us with pure judgment alone. Only from the back, only with law mingled with kindness, can the world endure. Indeed, only with this mixture did God allow the Jews as a people to survive after the sin of the Golden Calf. Not coincidentally, God’s thirteen attributes of mercy soon follow in the text (Exodus 34:6-7).
One final thought. Could it be that when Moshe tells God, Let me see you from the front, God responds that built into his essence is deep humility? This may be the meaning of our text. God is saying. “I don’t want the honor of being seen from the front, but rather modestly from the back.”
As God displays the trait of humility, so too should we attempt to learn the lesson of walking humbly in the world.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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