Moses said to the Lord, “…You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’ Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.”…He [Moses] said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “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,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” And the Lord 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 shall remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Shemot 33:12-13, 17-23)
When God Himself has turned away,
the ties that bind are loosened;
yet we yearn for closeness – for a sign of love.
We search for light to oust the shadows,
chasing answers, hearing whispers
faintly sighing, as the wind blows past the cliffs.
Although we seek, we cannot see God’s face:
He shows the knot betrothing us to Him;
perhaps each time it furls a little tighter.
In the Talmud (Berachot 7a) we learn that when Moses asks to know God’s ways, he wants to understand how God metes out judgment: why sometimes the righteous prosper, but sometimes they do not, and equally, why sometimes the wicked prosper, even though sometimes they do not. According to the Ramban in his commentary on the book of Job, this issue strikes at the very heart of faith, to the foundation on which the Torah itself stands. Many commentators consider that the book of Job was authored to discuss this topic, and indeed, there is a view in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) that Moses himself wrote the book of Job!
In a commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa from 2005, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5381, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz addresses this timeless question of God’s role in suffering. She highlights the perennial human struggle in the face of tragedy and loss when it is hard to find God’s beneficent presence when really the feeling is more one of “abandonment, alienation, and absence of the goodness, mercy and power we expect from God…” a feeling she describes as that of God having turned His back on us.
She cites the verse, “Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Shemot 33:23) and continues, “After all they have been through – the trials and tribulations leading up to the giving of the Torah, the building of the Golden Calf, Moses shattering the first set of the tablets, the tribes having just killed 3000 people as they struggle to realign themselves with God – now God says – I will turn my back on you and you will not see My presence?”
Rabbi Peretz considers human relationships, and notes that frequently the anger and pain engendered when one party turns his back, leads to the other doing so in response. However, she adds, “Yet, we know that the ties that bind us to those dearest to us often nurse us to re-establish contact and to rebuild the relationship with new understandings and interactions… ”
The Talmudic sages see a parallel in our relationship to God even when He appears to turn from us. Concerning the verse, “Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back,” Rav Chana bar Bizna said in the name of R’ Shimon Chasida, “This teaches that the Holy One Blessed be He, showed Moses the knot of tefillin which is worn at the back of His head.” (Berachot 7a) Rabbi Peretz says, “The knot of God’s tefillin – the very symbol through which we Jews and God bind ourselves to one another each and every day in a symbolic marriage. In the moment of greatest struggle to understand God’s place in the world, the Talmud invokes the image of greatest intimacy and connection.”
(The verses recited as the tefillin are donned each day, “And I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness: and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:21-22) carry us back to the Revelation on Sinai where we entered into a “spiritual marriage” with God, with the Torah as a dowry. According to the Soncino commentary, the threefold repetition of “I will betroth you“, denotes affection and permanence.)
In another commentary on the parasha by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/1777535/jewish/When-I-Wanted-You-Did-Not.htm, he too addresses the question of why bad things happen to good people. However, Rabbi Jacobson traces the beginning of this dialogue between Moses and God to the episode of the burning bush.
In Ki Tissa, Moses asks to be shown God’s glory but God declines saying that no-one can see His face and live.
It is pointed out in the Talmud in the same discussion cited above (Berachot 7a) that God wanted to reveal Himself to Moses at the burning bush but “Moses hid his face, for he feared to look upon God.” (Shemot 3:6). A beraita* was taught in the name of R’ Yehoshua ben Korchah: “This is what the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses, “When I wanted to reveal Myself to You, you did not want, now that You want, I do not want.” ”
Rabbi Jacobson wonders how to understand this passage, “Either Moses deserved to see the Divine face or he doesn’t…” He dismisses the notion that God is being “petty” and paying Moses back. He notes an opinion in the Midrash which maintains that Moses was being respectful and hiding his face and was rewarded for this later. He adds that since the verse tells us that no-one can see God’s face and survive, the Talmud is hinting here that had Moses looked at God earlier, he could have done so now too. But in any event, Rabbi Jacobson asks why Moses was first reluctant, and now suddenly and urgently desires to see God’s face.
He examines the episode of the burning bush, in which we learn that the bush was a thorn bush, and that God tells Moses that He has seen the suffering of the people and heard their cries. Rashi comments that the lowly, prickly thorn bush signifies that God was with the people in their suffering and humiliation. Rabbi Jacobson adds, “And now, G-d wanted to show Moses the deeper mystery of good and evil, life and death – “what is above and what is below, what was and what will be.”
“But Moses did not want to see G-d’s face in the Holocaust. He did not want to “understand” G-d’s “reasoning” for allowing the death of millions of innocent children. He wasn’t willing to face the ultimate paradox and “hear” Divine explanations for human suffering. “He feared to look upon G-d” when he saw the lives being consumed by the burning bush, even as the bush itself was not being consumed. Moses “hid his face” and just wanted to cry.”
Rabbi Jacobson continues, recalling how God indeed redeems the people, culminating in the Revelation on Mount Sinai, and then disaster strikes in the form of the panic-stricken people fashioning and worshiping the Golden Calf. Moses descends from the mountain and has a double task: to arouse God’s compassion; and to offer the people a route to repentance. Rabbi Jacobson says, “Moses knew that now he needed to return to the “burning bush,” the place where good and evil meet, where joy and suffering converge – the place where the Divine can be found in the darkest corners of existence. He understood that only this impenetrable place contained the answer to solve the ultimate paradox: How to repent from sin; how to heal from wounds – how the “bush can burn and not be consumed” – the power of Teshuvah.”
He cites the Midrash which relates how God imparted to Moses the methods of purification from defilement and Moses asked how purification can be obtained from the impurity of death, and God taught him the rites of the Red Heifer. He says that Moses then had a heightened awareness of the mysteries of life and death. So, he says, “…at this point, recognizing the need to heal from the “death” brought upon by the Golden Calf, Moses implored of G-d “I beg you, show me Your face.”
Rabbi Jacobson continues, “And here G-d revealed to Moses one of the most profound secrets of all: “I show you My face not in pleasure, but in the burning bush – in pain and suffering. I show you My face not when you want to see it, but when I want you to see it.”
“”When I wanted you didn’t want; now when you want, I don’t want.” G-d was not “getting even” with Moses; He was baring His Essence and telling Moses “I want a partner. I cannot show you My face if you do not partner with me. Had you looked at me when I wanted to show you My face, even though it was in pain, then you would have joined Me in the mysterious journey of grief and joy, and you would be able to see My face and gather strength. You cannot come and expect to see My face on your terms – when you like it. You have to respect the moment when I want to show it to you.”
But he notes that God did show Moses His goodness. He concludes, “When we face unfathomable suffering, we are not expected to be better than Moses. We too close our eyes and just weep. Maybe it takes a G-d to witness so much pain and be able to bear it…We don’t want to look at G-d’s face in such moments…Yet, whether we like it or not, G-d wants us to partner with Him…How many more bushes have to be burned before the Divine presence is revealed?”
*Beraita (Aramaic: “external” or “outside”) designates a tradition in the Jewish oral law not incorporated in the Mishnah. “Beraita” thus refers to teachings “outside” of the six orders of the Mishnah. Originally, “Beraita” probably referred to teachings from schools outside of the main Mishnaic-era academies – although in later collections, individual Beraitot are often authored by sages of the Mishna (Tannaim).
This poem and its commentary is dedicated in loving memory of Rachel Herold z”l (1921 – 2015) who died this week. Rachel was my Hebrew school teacher. Apart from my father, z”l, who was my first and ongoing teacher of Yiddishkeit, Rachel taught me the most. She had an incredible gift for imparting the intricacies of the “technicalities” like grammar (under her tuition I learned to parse almost any verb in the Tanach) and translation. She loved Torah, the Jewish people and the land of Israel and she enthusiastically taught us the gamut of Jewish subjects including Halacha, Mishna, history. But much more than that she embodied a beautiful and balanced example of a very observant but non-dogmatic Judaism. She was very particular both with the mitzvot “bein adam laMakom (between Man and God) as with those “bein adam lechaveiro” (between Man and his fellow). She was kind, gentle and non-judgmental.
Rachel learned with us Rashi’s commentary from several parashot, and as it transpires, one of these is to be found in Ki Tissa – the parasha of the week in which she died, and the part we learned with her deals with exactly the subject addressed above.
Although Rachel’s English was fluent and elegant, she had a German accent, so as a youngster, if I thought about it at all, I would have assumed that she had been born in Germany and at some point came over to England with her family. From the hesped that Rachel’s son gave, I learned that Rachel, an only child, had arrived in England in 1939 as a lone seventeen year old, sent by her courageous and foresighted parents whom she never saw again, as they perished in the Holocaust.
So for Rachel, the burning question of why the righteous suffer must have been far from a theoretical one. Yet she kept her faith. (I also just learned that her family had been much less observant, but under the burgeoning anti-semitism in Germany she had to leave her public school and so she transferred to a Jewish one, the Carlebachschule in Leipzig where she became religious).
Despite all odds, Rachel maintained the integrity of the chain of Jewish life and learning, and not only did she not permit the ties that bound her to her faith to unravel, she strengthened them in the coming generations.
May her memory be for a blessing!