Friday, September 20, 2002
UPDATE: after writing the below, I read Rav Shlomo Riskin's weekly Torah discussion, which this week is about the conjunction of Shabbat and Sukkot. It's better than what I wrote, so read him if you only have time for one piece.
UPDATE #2: Okay, okay, I know: I screwed up. The text I write about below is NOT the text we read on Shabbat of Sukkot IF Shabbat falls on one of the first two days. We ONLY read the text below on Shabbat of one of the INTERMEDIATE days of Sukkot. So sue me.
Okay, so yesterday was Thursday, and I didn't get around to writing about the weekly parshah. Well, I have an excuse: this week there is no weekly parshah. This Shabbat coincides with the beginning of Sukkot, as the Shabbat two weeks ago coincided with Rosh ha-Shanah, and the reading for Shabbat morning is a section of parshat Ki Tisa. Which, I'm sure you all recall, is one of the serious Cecil B. DeMille parshiyot, the one with the Golden Calf in it.
The particular section read on this Shabbat starts a little later on. (The section runs from Exodus 33:12 through 34:26.) Moses, after the sin of the Golden Calf, seeks reassurance from G-d that He will go with him as he leads the people through the desert. Ultimately, he asks to see G-d's presence. G-d says no, saying that no living man may see His "face," but that he will reveal his "back." What follows is a selection that should be very familiar from the Yom Kippur liturgy, as it is repeated several times over the course of the day:
Va-yered HASHEM be-'anan, va-yityatzeiv 'imo sham, ya-yikra be-sheim HASHEM. Va-ya'avor HASHEM al panav va-yikra: HASHEM, HASHEM, El rachum ve-chanun, erekh apayim ve-rav chesed ve-emet; notzeir chesed la-alaphim, nosei avon v-phesha' ve-chatah ve-naqeih . . .
And G-d descended upon a cloud, and stood there with Him, and He cried out in the Lord's name. And G-d passed before his face and He proclaimed: The Lord, the Lord, merciful and compassionate G-d, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth; He remembers deeds of lovingkindness for thousands [of years, or generations], forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin . . .
(As an aside: There's some ambiguity in the Hebrew, where the subject of a sentence is typically not named. Does G-d stand with Moses or Moses with G-d? Does G-d proclaim his own name, or does Moses? The traditional understanding is that G-d is doing the proclaiming, but the language does support the opposite interpretation.)
The text goes on to the establishment of a new covenant, and specific injunctions to Israel: not to make a covenant with the peoples of Canaan, lest the Israelites fall into idolatry with them, nor to intermarry with them; to observe the Festival of Matzot (Passover) for seven days in the month of spring, the season of the Exodus; to consecrate firstborn animals and children to G-d, the animals through an animal sacrifice and a child through a monetary redemption; to cease agricultural labor on the Sabbath; the celebrate the Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot, together with Passover the three Pilgrimage festivals; to eliminate leaven on Passover; to eat the Passover sacrifice completely on Passover eve; to bring first fruits as an offerng to the Temple; and not to seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
It seems a pretty unrelated collection of instructions. But there is a theme that runs through it that I want to focus on: the theme of facing G-d and G-d's face.
Moses' plea to G-d at the start of the selection begins:
See, you told me to bring up this nation, but You did not let me know who You would send with me, and yet You said You know me by name and that I have found favor in Your eyes. Now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, please let me know Your path, that I may know You, that I may find favor in Your eyes; for see: this nation is Your people.
My face will lead you, and give you comfort.
To which Moses responds:
If we are to go without Your face, do not bring us up from here. For how will it be known that I found favor in Your eyes, I and Your people, if not for that You go among us; for thus are Your people and I distinguished from all the peoples on the face of the earth.
G-d assents to Moses' request, at which point Moses says:
Please, show me Your glory.
And G-d responds:
I will cause to pass before your face all My goodness, and cry in the name of the Lord before you, and I will be gracious to whom I am gracious, and merciful to whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see My face, for no man may see Me and live.
There is a place with Me, where you can stand upon the rock. And when My glory passes, I will place you in a cleft in the rock, and I will place My hand over you until I have passed. And then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back; but My face you will not see.
Traditionally, the heavy anthropomorphism of this passage is understood metaphorically. It is not the sight of G-d, who has no form, and therefore no face, but some aspect of His divinity that cannot be comprehended by the living. One interpretation is: to see G-d's face is to apprehend His design for the universe, something we cannot fathom. We can only see His back - that is to say, the sign of G-d's presence in the world after He has had his effect.
But what I think is interesting is: Moses never asks to see G-d's face. He asks two things: first, to know G-d's path, so that he can continue to find favor as leader of G-d's people; and second, to see G-d's glory. It is G-d Himself who refers repeatedly to His face. In response to Moses' question of who will lead the people with him, G-d answers: My face. And in response to Moses' request that G-d show him His glory, G-d replies: I will make My goodness pass before you; I will call out in My name; you will see My back; but My face you will not see. The one time Moses refers to G-d's face, it is in reaction to G-d's statement that His face will lead the people with Moses, and his reaction reads to me like surprise and alarm: if we have to go on without G-d's face, better we should never leave Sinai.
What's going on here? To answer, I want to look at a couple of other points in the section where there are references to G-d's face:
In Exodus 34:20, apropos of the redemption of the firstborn of animals and of human sons, the verse concludes: ve-lo yeirau phanai reiqam - literally, and you will not be seen before My face empty-handed.
In Exodus 34:23, apropos of pilgrimages: shalosh pa'amim ba-shanah yeiraeh kol zekhurkha et penei ha-adon HASHEM Eloqei Yisrael - Three times every year all men among you will be seen before the face of the Lord G-D, the G-d of Israel.
And the following verse continues: ki orish goyim mi-panekha, ve-hirchavti et gevulekha, ve-lo yachamod ish et artzekha ba'alotekha la-raot et penei HASHEM Eloqekha shalosh pa'amim ba-shanah - For I will drive out the nations before your face, and extend your borders, and no man will envy you your land when you ascend to be seen before the face of the Lord your G-d three times a year.
Seeing G-d's face is something humans are not meant to do. But to be seen before G-d's face is something we are supposed to do regularly. And the timing of that encounter is specific: it takes place when new life comes into the world, and at the pilgrimage festivals. These seasons are seasons of gratitude for G-d's manifest presence in the world, as the author of life and as the divine actor in the national life of Israel in the world, as Israel progresses from Passover (redemption from slavery and rebirth in freedom), to Pentecost (the receipt of the Torah and its obligations of a free man and a free people before G-d), to Tabernacles (the sheltering under G-d's presence in the wilderness and the entry into the Land with its bounty, a prefiguring of the Messianic apotheosis).
Moses does not have the effrontery to ask to see G-d's face. But what he is looking for is assurance of G-d's presence in the world and with His people. And so he dances around the subject: he asks G-d who is going to go with him; he asks to see G-d's glory. In a roundabout way he is asking G-d: how do I know for sure that at the end of our wandering in the wilderness there will be redemption? What can you show me that will assure me?
G-d's assurance begins with the revelation of His goodness, and of His name, which is compassionate and merciful. The nation may sin, but it will always have recourse to repentance. But the assurance expands outward from there, into the time when the people dwell in the Land. And G-d assures Moses, in effect, thusly: when you enter the Land, and show your gratitude to G-d for all His blessings on you by redeeming your first born sons, and offering the first-born of your flocks and your first fruits, and coming to stand before me at your festivals of Thanksgiving three times a year; when you show this gratitude, and do not behave as if all this was achieved by your own power; then truly you will have appeared before G-d's face, and then truly the nations of the world will see that you are privileged to so stand in the presence of G-d, and by this manner will your redemption be secure.