Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
Meeting the Gaze of Moses
This week, on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach, we once again have the opportunity to read the beautiful and borderline irreverent passage in which Moses asks to see God’s kavod, God’s presence or glory. The lead-up to Moses’s big ask is exquisite – Moses and God dance around the topic, one more polite than the next, as they reconfigure their relationship in the wake of the Golden Calf.
The words both Moses and God use focus on sight. Moses starts his speech by asking God to “see,” to “look.” He’ll remind God to “see” that this people, Israel, is God’s nation. Repeatedly, Moses reminds God that God likes Moses, literally that Moses has “found favor in his eyes.” This emphasis on sight is striking. Rashi explains that Moses is reminding God to look back to God’s own words, to reflect that to which God has already acquiesced. Ibn Ezra reads “see” as Moses asking God to look at him, to behold the difficult situation in which Moses finds himself. Either way, the request to be seen is a call for remembering and for taking responsibility.
God agrees to the request of Moses, explaining that God’s face, perhaps meaning God’s presence, will go with the Israelites. Moses had two requests, for God to see and to let him know who would lead the Israelites with him. God responds definitively to the latter request. God perhaps also responds to the first request, the call for sight, by sending his seeing mechanism to be with Moses. God puts God’s face at eye level with the Israelites, becoming their perpetual beholder.
All this talk of God seeing Israel, of God bringing God’s face to Israel, contextualizes God’s response when Moses famously requests to see God’s kavod. Setting up an aspects-of-God parade, God will allow various attributes of God to pass before Moses’s face while Moses is wedged in a rock. But God will not allow Moses to see God’s kavod or God’s face. The relationship defined here is clear and asymmetrical. God is present, God’s face is present with the Israelites, so that God can see them and can behold Moses. But Moses is not to see God’s face.
But Moses does glimpse something. We read that God permits Moses to see God’s ahor. Many modern translations render this word as “back.” Moses catches a view of God as God leaves. It is unclear what God’s back is supposed to be or why Moses would be allowed to look at it. One possibility, brought to us by Rashi, is that God shows Moses the knot of tefillin behind his head. However, “back” is not the only way the word has been understood. Targum Onkelos, a second century Aramaic version of the Torah, renders ahor and penai, which I have been translating as “face,” as directional terms, reading the verse to say, “You will see that which is after me, but what is before me shall not be seen.” The Avot de Rabbi Natan understands these terms as references to the world to come and to this world. Moses may see one but not the other. Diana Lipton, a current biblical scholar at Tel Aviv University, suggests based on careful readings of rabbinic texts, that we may understand the ahor as referring to the future and penai as referring to the past. God permits Moses to glimpse the future but not the present and not the past. God reassures Moses by showing him the continuity of the Jewish people long after Moses is gone.
God does not reveal to Moses the mysteries of how people work in his present time or why the Golden Calf happened. Rather, God lets Moses know that we will be ok even after Moses is gone. God fully sees Moses, answering the true question that Moses is asking.
On Pesach, we do the opposite. We gaze deeply into our past, reliving the Exodus. In doing so, we see the penai rather than the ahor. In looking towards the past, we see God’s face, dwelling securely among the Jewish people.