May 22, 2019

Table for Five: Sukkot Shabbat

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen. 

— Exodus 33:23

Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah 

Moses sees God’s back, rather than God’s face, because God is in motion, moving forward. We are designed to be in motion. 

Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver teaches: “We are quite literally not who we were years, weeks or even days ago. Our cells die and are replaced by new ones at an astonishing pace. What persists over time is not fixed, but merely a pattern in flux.” 

We are made in God’s image, which does not mean we look like God and God looks like us, rather, we are patterned after the moving pattern of God. At this season, we talk about return. But when we say return, we do not mean “go backward.” We mean returning to the path that will take us forward. 

The whole Torah is about a movement, from the exile from Eden to the exile from Egypt, and we never really arrive. Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He also said, “No person ever steps in the same river twice.” So, when we roll Torah back to the beginning, it is not the same Torah, nor are we the same people. 

There is a reason the most meaningful part of the bar mitzvah ceremony is the passing of the Torah. There is a reason the prayer that brings the most people to tears is L’Dor va-Dor (from generation to generation). Because it touches on the essence of what we are. We are the river. 

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Job wasn’t the first biblical character to ask the question that more than any other challenges our faith. Philosophers call it theodicy. Simply put: Why do bad things happen to good people? 

How can we believe in a kind and compassionate God — his very name in English is a contraction for the word good — when we are so often witness to the unfairness of life and the injustices of the world around us? Doesn’t reality give the lie to religion? 

According to the Talmud, it was Moses who had the nerve to pose the question to the Almighty. Right after God forgave the Jews for the sin of the golden calf and defined his essence by way of the 13 attributes of mercy, Moses said, “Show me, I pray you, your glory.” And that is when God responded, “And you will see my back but my face you shall not see.” Surely Moses knew that God has no body. What Moses wanted was the ability to understand God’s glory in spite of his apparent indifference to human suffering. 

The answer has not only been key to my faith but has numerous times proven itself to be the explanation for some of the most trying moments in my life. “You will see my back!” 

Soren Kierkegaard put it beautifully when he said, “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward.” To see God’s back is to recognize that our lives make sense — but only in retrospect. 

Rabbi Mark Blazer
Temple Beth Ami

Moses, God’s strongest conduit to the people throughout much of the Torah, wants what nearly every human wants: To see more of God. 

Even Moses, who had a relationship with God unique in its closeness, can’t completely know God. Later prophets also strove to see more of God. The Bible and later Jewish tradition frequently teaches us that we are on a different wavelength than God, which makes a complete knowledge of the Divine impossible. As Isaiah is told: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” 

We may view glimpses of God in this life through the natural world, in intellectual, spiritual and artistic expressions, and creations of those who try to make the Divine manifest in this world. Most importantly, we see God in the people around us. Humanity. Every one of us. 

The Torah teaches us in the very beginning, that we were created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, as reflections of God. Through our meaningful interactions with humanity, with each person on this planet, we gain a deeper understanding of God, each reflection giving us another glance at an aspect of the Divine. 

As we synthesize these visions in our desire for understanding of the One-Who-Is-Everything, we are confronted by how challenging this yearning is. Yet in our striving to know and experience the highest and deepest aspects of this existence, we are comforted to know that even Moses was frustrated by what he couldn’t see. 

Rabbi David Lapin
Rabbi and scholar

Bitachon (faith) and emunah (belief) are different. Bitachon gives meaning to the future; emunah gives meaning to the past. 

We try to predict the future, yet despite our sophistication, our ability to predict the future is limited. We try to predict markets, the weather, election results and the futures of our children but in the final analysis, we need faith to stride into the future with confidence. 

The past, however, is factual and doesn’t need faith. When viewing the past, whether our own pasts or history, we have a choice. We can interpret past events as random, we can understand them in terms of direct results of prior human choices, or we can discover a Divine latticework of interconnected events that gives our pasts meaning. This discovery of the Divine hand in the unfolding past is emunah. 

In our verse, HaShem blindfolds Moshe as He approaches. As HaShem passes, he removes the blindfold “and you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen,” forcing Moshe to turn back and look over his shoulder to encounter God. 

We too, need to pause and look over our shoulders at our own pasts to discover God and engage with Him. 

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

Picture this scene: As you walk down a hall, you notice through a keyhole in the door of one of the rooms what appears to be a masked man, knife in hand, bearing down on what appears to an innocent, sleeping kid. Your jaw drops as you involuntary blurt out, “Murder!” 

What if I were to tell you that the hall was in a hospital and behind that closed door was a world-renowned surgeon about to remove a growth to save the child’s life? 

All of us experience pain in life. Our reflex human reaction is to scream bloody murder. If, however, we had a broader perspective than the limited view of trying to interpret life events through a “keyhole,” we would acknowledge that we do not see the full picture. More often than not, we understand some of our toughest setbacks only in hindsight, by looking back after the benefit of the passing of time and with a greater perspective. 

The notion of only fully appreciating life events in retrospect is one of the profound lessons the Almighty relayed to Moses, and, in turn, to all of us in the oft-cited Chapter 33 of Exodus, verse 23: “I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.” We are finite beings locked in time … God is Infinite and outside of time and he alone knows what is good for us in the end.