October 21st: Sukkot
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
The Shabbat in the middle of Sukkot has a special Torah portion, one telling about a rather curious encounter between Moses and God. In Exodus 33, we read about how Moses pleads with God to behold the Divine Presence. God sort of agrees, but the revelation does not seem to be what Moses expects. Here is what God says, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My face, for humans may not see Me and live. 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 33.19-23)
When this happens (two paragraphs later), God’s passing Presence proclaims the words from which we get the Eleven Attributes of God: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…”
It is clearly a major revelation—up at the level of the Burning Bush and the Giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, but the striking and almost nonsensical anthropomorphism of the passage begs for some kind of metaphorical relief. God’s hand? God’s back? What are we to make of these images?
Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, a student of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and one of the founders of the Reconstructionist Movement, approaches this question and sees God’s back as the aftermath or effect of God’s Presence—as the wake of God’s passage through the stream of the cosmos. God’s goodness is that which God influences us to do. Here is what Rabbi Eisenstein wrote in What We Mean By Religion:
“Now, we cannot actually picture goodness. It is not a being; it is a force, like electricity. Nobody ever actually saw electricity. We know that it exists. We can see and feel what electricity does. If we have an electric bulb and connect it with an electric wire, we get light. If we have an electric heater and connect it, we get heat. If we have an electric motor and attach it to a vehicle, we get the vehicle to move. In other words, we get to know what electricity is by what it does. In the same way, we get to know what God is by what God makes us do: when a person is connected with God, that person does good things. We call that person a godly person, and his/her act is a godly act. Whenever this force is active, we say that God has exercised influence and power.”
Judah HaLevi, the 12th Century Spanish physician, philosopher, and poet (such nachas!), approaches this quest for knowledge of and intimacy with God in the following poem. The original was, of course, written in Hebrew. The translation which follows comes from the 19th Century, though the identity of the poetic translator is unclear. Where can we find God? How can we know God? Here is HaLevi’s insight.
O Lord, where shall I find You, when hid is Your lofty place?
And where shall I not find You, when Your glory fills all space?
You formed the worlds and also live within our souls alway,
You are a refuge to them that seek You, ransom for them that stray.
O, how shall mortals praise You, when angels strive in vain,
Or build for You a dwelling, Whom worlds cannot contain?
Longing to draw near You, with all my heart I pray,
Then going forth to seek You, You meet me on my way.
I find You in the marvels of Your creative might,
In visions in Your Temple, in dreams that bless the night.
Who says we do not see You? Your heavens refute their word;
Your hosts declare Your glory, though never voice be heard.
In the “old” Union Prayer Book of the Reform Movement, the authors combined HaLevi’s poem with the passage from Exodus 33 in what I believe to be one of the most important creative prayers of the 20th Century. By the way, the editorial guiding hand of this 1940 prayer book was Rabbi Solomon Freehof of Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“O Lord, how can we know You? Where can we find You? You are as close to us as breathing and yet are farther than the farthermost star. You are as mysterious as the vast solitudes of the night and yet are as familiar as the light of the sun. To the seer of old You did say: You cannot see My Face, but I will make all My Goodness pass before You. Even so does Your Goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives.
When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow down before the vision of Your Goodness? You live in our hearts, as You pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Your Presence.”
In other words, when we, with Moses and so many others throughout time, wish to encounter the Divine, we are given two pieces of advice:
(1) Look for God’s signature in creation and in the godly acts of others.
(2) Participate in God’s work and thus get to know God affectively.
We may not be able to see God’s Face, but we can be close to God and feel God’s wonder and love and influence.