KI TISA 5775
Last Shabbos I spoke about Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic then upcoming speech to the joint session of Congress and its parallels to the Purim story. Netanyahu didn’t disappoint. The speech was wonderful and inspiring and the reception he received from Congress was heartwarming. Perhaps some of you thought I would speak about the contents of his speech this Shabbos—and I thought I might—but after further consideration I think his words can stand for themselves and no further commentary is necessary. If, for some reason you were not able to hear the speech, go to YouTube and you can hear the whole thing.
Today, instead of a sermon, I thought I might study with you a mystifying, yet inspiring passage from today’s Torah portion that deserves to be studied every year. After the sin of the golden calf, Gd tells Moses (Ex. 32:10) to leave Him alone and He will destroy the Jewish people and make of him a great nation. Here was Moses’ chance for ultimate greatness, yet he continues to plead his people’s case and eventually tells Gd (Ex. 32:32), “If you don’t forgive their sin erase me from this book that You have written.” Gd was so impressed with Moses’ selfless behavior that, according to the Talmud (Brachot 7a), he let him know it. Moses, sensing the opportunity, asks Gd the most fundamental question (Ex. 33:13) of faith in a cry which resounds throughout the centuries: Hodi-eyni na et d’rachecha, “Gd, make known to me Your ways.”
What is Moses asking for? What does Moses want from Gd, above and beyond forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf and a renewal of the relationship with the Jewish people? With audacity and daring, the rabbis of the Talmud interpret the text as Moses challenging Gd, saying: “Master of the Universe, what is the reason that there are righteous people for whom things are good and there are righteous people from whom things are bad? And there are wicked people from whom things are good and there are wicked people from whom things are bad.” In other words, “Gd, Your world is not fair. Do You not know about the widows, the orphans, the wells of tears shed by your children every day? Hodi-eyni na et d’rachecha, Please show me your ways” so I can understand.
Moses (Ex. 33:18) concludes his question by asking, Hareyni na et k’vodecha, “show me please Your glory?” Was Moses asking to see Gd? It reminds me of the story of the little girl who was drawing a picture in her Sunday School class when the teacher asked her what she was drawing?
She replied, “I’m making a picture of Gd.”
The teacher lovingly responded, “But no one knows what Gd looks like.”
And the child brightly smiled and said, “Now they will.”
No, Moses knew that seeing Gd was impossible. The word kavod, “glory,” also means, “honor or respect.” What Moses was really asking was: “Gd, I want to totally respect You—to give You the respect that comes from understanding. I don’t understand Your management of the world when I see a young child with leukemia or a great teacher of Torah withering slowly away with Alzheimer’s.”
Moses was the greatest of all the prophets. He got closer to Gd than any other human being—panim el panim, “face to face”—as today’s parsha (Ex. 33:11) puts it. This passage describes the highpoint of Moses’ closeness to Gd. At this moment does Moses embrace Gd with clear theological proofs of divine perfection? Does he, in ecstasy, move to a higher level of meditation? No. At the highest level of human spirituality, Moses challenges Gd. He cries out with a question and demands a response. And the Torah understands this challenge not as a movement away from Gd, but as the quintessential movement towards Gd. Questioning then becomes the ultimate embrace of Gd as we will soon see at the Pesach Seder.
What is Gd’s response to Moses’ question? “And I will make all my goodness pass before you and I shall call out with the name of Hashem before you.” The usage of Hashem (Y-H-V-H) as Gd’s name instead of Elokim is very significant. Hashem denotes Gd’s mercy and compassion, while Elokim denotes the aspect of Gd of strict justice and nature which can, at times, seem cruel. What Gd is saying to Moses is: If you could see everything, if you had a total picture of My goodness, you would be able to understand that I am always Hashem, a compassionate Gd. And everything I do, I do out of love and compassion!
And the verse continues: “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy upon whom I will show mercy.” What is Gd saying here? It’s not up to us to judge how Gd distributes His bounty in this world. Gd has his reasons why some people prosper and others struggle. It may just be part of a soul’s challenge and rectification. Yes, even being rich can be a challenge. May we all be so challenged. Also, someone we may think is so righteous may not be and someone we may think is a sinner may have such goodness inside. In the final analysis, Gd has a plan that is beyond our understanding. Therefore, Gd “will be gracious to whom He will be gracious!”
Think of it this way. I love this image: try to see the beauty of a needlepoint work of art by looking only at the backside with all its loose threads and knots. What we see and experience in this world is just the backside of Gd’s masterpiece.
Gd then tells Moses (Ex. 33:22): “When My glory passes by, I shall place you in a cleft of the rock; I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I shall remove My hand,” and here Gd adds the crucial words, “And you shall see My back, but My face you will not see.” Now this response is even stranger than the question. Gd has no form. He cannot have a front or a back because He is everywhere.
Gd’s answer to Moses was: “When I pass before you, you will not see me. You will only see my back.” In other words: “Often, when things happen in the world, you won’t see Me. But in retrospect, as you look back, you will understand and see how things are tied together.” Sometimes the retrospect is obvious, as in the case of someone coming late and missing a plane that crashes; or the case of one who loses his job and winds up with a much better job. But sometimes the retrospect, the backward look, is not so obvious.
Therefore, Gd adds the phrase: lo yirani ha-adam vachai, “No human can see Me and live.” The Hebrew letter vav, which we translate as, “and,” can also mean, “while.” The deeper meaning of the verse therefore is that we cannot see Gd—and fully understand His ways—while alive in this world. Full understanding can only come in the retrospect of the next world. After we die we will respectfully ask Gd, “How could You?” And Gd will smile and reply, “I’ve been waiting to tell you.”
Towards the end of the Torah (Deut: 32:4) Moses describes Gd: “The Rock, His work is perfect; ki kol d’rachav mishpat, for all His ways are just.” This is both an embrace and a challenge. We must embrace Gd and accept that what happens in our lives—for the most part—is Gd’s will and that it’s all for the best. The usage of the word, d’rachav, “His ways,” in the verse ties into the use of the same word in our Torah portion when Moses questions Gd’s ways—teaching us that challenging and questioning, far from distancing us from Gd, can actual bring us closer to Him.
My friends, embrace and challenge are both core pathways to Gd. May we merit to walk in their paths and may we draw comfort in knowing that when life seems impossible to bear, the all-compassionate Gd is there watching over us, and that someday we will understand, ki kol d’rachav mishpat, for all His ways are just.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis