God said, “See there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and as My glory 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 remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Shemot 33:21-23)
Safe in the cleft of the rock,
vast boulders looming,
the unbearable blaze
as God passes by
is shielded by His hand:
His light is only discernible
The Hatam Sofer* teaches that we cannot see God directly: we can only see the difference He has made after the fact. He says,”The way God conducts His world can only be seen and recognised after the event. After some time, when we have before us a full review of events, it is possible to understand a small part of God’s actions, but at the actual time, our understanding is too limited, and we are left wondering. As it says in Tehillim 28:5, “For they do not understand the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands.” And here, “You will see My back” – at the end of days you will see and understand Me, and “My face will not be seen” – at the time of the occurrence, in the middle of it all, you will not see Me.”
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS says of the words, “My back” “this daring human image for God, contrasted with the usual biblical term “panim, face or presence“, refers to the traces of the Divine Presence, the afterglow of his supernatural radiance.”
*Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Sofer)(1762–1839) is also known by the name of his main work Hatam Sofer(meaning Seal of the Scribe and acronym for Chiddushei Torat Moshe Sofer). He was one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century.
He was a teacher to thousands and a powerful opponent of the Reform movement in Judaism, which was then attracting many people from the Jewish communities in Austria-Hungary and beyond. As Rabbi of the city of Pressburg, he maintained a strong Orthodox Jewish perspective through communal life, superior education, and uncompromising opposition to Reform and radical change.
Rabbi Sofer established a yeshiva in Bratislava, the Pressburg Yeshiva, which became the most influential yeshiva in Central Europe, producing hundreds of future leaders of Hungarian Jewry. This yeshiva continued to function until World War II, first under the leadership of his son Abraham Samuel Benjamin Wolf (1815- 71), known as the Ketav Sofer (Writing of the Scribe), who, in turn, was succeeded by his son, Simchah Bunim (1842-1906), known as the Shevet Sofer (Pen of the Scribe); subsequently it relocated to Jerusalem under the leadership of the Hatam Sofer’s great-grandson, Rabbi Akiva Sofer (1878-1959)(the Daat Sofer – the Opinion of the Scribe).
The Hatam Sofer published very little during his lifetime. His posthumously published works include more than a thousand responsa, novellae on the Talmud, sermons, biblical and liturgical commentaries, and religious poetry. He is an oft-quoted authority in Orthodox Jewish scholarship. Many of his responsa are required reading for semicha (rabbinic ordination) candidates. His Torah chiddushim (original Torah insights) sparked a new style in rabbinic commentary, and some editions of the Talmud contain his emendations