Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
The Cranny of the Gym
This week’s parsha describes an intimate encounter between God and Moshe that takes place following the incident with the golden calf. Moshe, after pleading with God to forgive the people, entreats God for a private revelation: “O let me behold Your presence” (Exodus 33:18). God rejects Moshe on the grounds that “No man may see Me and live” (33:20). Even so, God compromises with Moshe and grants him a glimpse – and in that moment, we are offered insight into how we, too, can catch sight of God in our world.
God’s revelation to Moshe is elaborately choreographed. God instructs Moshe to stand near Him so that He may shield Moshe with His hand as He passes before him. God then takes His hand away, so that Moshe catches sight of God from behind. According to the Talmud (Berachot 7a), God grants Moshe a glimpse of the knot of God’s tefillin, worn at the base of the back of the neck. The tefillin are small boxes containing pieces of parchment inscribed with Biblical verses. Earlier in this passage, the rabbis ask what is written on God’s tefillin, and respond that they bear a verse from Chronicles (17:21): “Who is like Your people, Israel, one nation in the land?” That is, God’s tefillin attest to the unique connection between God and Israel. And so when Moshe catches a glimpse of God’s tefillin knot—the Hebrew word for knot, kesher, means bond—he is also being assured of God’s irrevocable bond with the Jewish people.
This revelation takes place in the cranny of a rock – in a hidden place where no one is around to bear witness. It is a private revelation for Moshe alone, in striking contrast to the public display at Sinai. The Torah relates that on Mount Sinai, God appeared in a cloud of fire with thunder and lightning, accompanied by shofar blasts as the mountain trembled violently. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 88b), the people were terrified by the divine voice – with each commandment spoken by God, their souls fled and they recoiled twelve miles to the rear, such that the angels had to help them back to their places. The revelation at Sinai was loud and fiery, in stark contrast to the more quiet and subdued revelation to Moshe in the cranny of the rock.
The contrast between these two revelations reminds me of another revelation that took place in the life of my own family a couple of months ago, at my daughters’ school Chumash ceremony during the fall of second grade. Ordinarily, this ceremony is held in the spacious high-ceilinged sanctuary of a local synagogue because the school auditorium is not large enough to contain all the parents, grandparents, and siblings who come to celebrate the occasion. But my daughters’ Chumash ceremony was very different – it took place in the midst of the Corona pandemic, during a partial lockdown when the schools were open but parents were not allowed to set foot on the premises. Their ceremony was held in the school gym, a cavernous room with only the tiniest windows to let light in through the crannies. Each second-grade class was called to the gym at a different time to receive their Chumash from their teacher. The kids sat in the otherwise empty bleachers and chanted a few verses from the opening of the Torah, and then filed back to their classroom to lower their masks and eat their lunches at their desks. I know this because my girls told me about it afterward; I wasn’t there. When I expressed my disappointment that the school had not even sent a Zoom link, my daughter insisted that “It wasn’t such a big deal, Ima.” But I begged to differ.
It was true that my girls had not experienced all the festivities and fanfare generally associated with this occasion. The revelation they experienced was more akin to Moshe’s private revelation in the cranny of the rock, but it was a revelation nonetheless. Like all the second-grade classes before them, they had also received their own Chumashim, and they would also begin learning the first chapter of Genesis that week. The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot (3:6) that God is present wherever people sit and study Torah. Even if only one person is engaged in the solitary study of Torah, the divine presence rests upon that individual. As I told my girls, every time they opened their Chumash to learn from it, the divine presence would be right there with them.
Later the school sent pictures of each child receiving his or her Chumash, though I couldn’t fully make out my girls’ faces – they were obscured by Corona masks. Our parsha teaches that when Moshe came down the mountain, his face was so radiant that the Israelites shrank back in fear, so Moshe had to cover his face with a veil. A veil is not quite a Corona mask, but then again, no two experiences of revelation are the same. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of God from the grand stage of a communal experience; other times we experience God from a hidden cranny where we learn all alone. May the Torah we study remind us of our unique connection to God and of the many possible ways to experience revelation