This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, interrupts the description of the building of the Tabernacle with a long narrative section that includes the story of the Golden Calf, the smashing of the Ten Commandments, the carving of the second set of tablets, and — although perhaps less famously — the most chutzpadik (impertinent) question in the whole Torah.
The question comes after Moses has negotiated twice with God on behalf of the Israelites: first, with moderate success, when he asks God to forgive the people for the sin of the idolatrous Golden Calf; and second, when he successfully convinces God to lead the Israelites along the next stage of their journey.
But Moses' next negotiation with God is not on behalf of the Israelites, but for himself. Out of the blue, it seems, just as God has acceded to his second request, Moses speaks up again. "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" he says to God (Exodus 33:18).
It's a short exclamation — just four words in the Hebrew — but it's a big, big question. Judaism has always been a religion of a God who cannot be seen. No human being has ever seen God directly — and that's not merely a coincidence, but a reality of God's power and vastness, and human limitations. As God says in response to Moses' request a few verses later, human beings cannot see God's face and live.
As is typical with the Torah's famously terse narrative voice, most of the details around Moses' question are left up to our imagination and interpretation. Was he begging God out of desperate curiosity or just wistfully giving voice to a wish he knew was impossible to grant? Had he been trying to summon up the courage to ask this question for months or did it slip out of his mouth before he could realize the gravity of what he had asked? Did he think the question was a gutsy one to ask or something that was long overdue after all Moses had done at God's command? Was he literally talking about seeing God with his eyes, the way we might see another person or a beautiful sunset, or was "beholding God's Presence" a metaphor for something else? What kind of response did he imagine he might receive from God?
These are all questions that have intrigued Jews for centuries. The medieval commentators' interpretations of this verse are especially enlightening, since they show the wide range of opinions about what must have been going on inside Moses' head.
Rashi, the 11th century French master, considers the immediate context of the verse as a clue to Moses' mindset. Rashi writes on Exodus 33:18, "Moses saw that it was 'a favorable moment' (Ps. 69:14) and that his requests were being accepted. So he added the request that God let him behold God's Presence." Perhaps, in Rashi's view, Moses blurts out his request without thinking too much about it, realizing what a good mood God is in. Or perhaps he had always thought of the request as impossible, but suddenly, it seems like the kind of moment when impossible wishes might just be granted.
But Rashi's grandson, the commentator known as Rashbam, seems to have trouble imagining that Moses could make so chutzpadik a request lightly. He writes, "One has to wonder how the heart of our master Moses could become so full as to desire to enjoy the radiance of the Shechinah, when earlier [in Exodus 3:6 at the Burning Bush], it is written — to Moses' credit! — 'Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.' "
Instead, Rashbam, like other commentators, concludes that Moses must have been talking about a metaphorical kind of seeing. Clearly, he argues, Moses is far too humble — and far too aware of the hubris associated with looking at God — to make such a request. He must not have meant his words literally, but is rather referring to a deeper kind of knowledge of God.
Rashbam is always a careful reader of the text, and I think his comment here is particularly insightful for its connection to the Burning Bush. The moment when Moses, out of piety, humility, and perhaps shyness and fear, refuses to look at God's Presence (Exodus 3:6), is one of the first dynamics in his relationship with God. But when I read the text, I can't help but take Moses' request literally. His words always strike me as breathless, candid, and raw. If I had been spending as much time as Moses did listening to God, I would be curious, too. His question — in its literal meaning — strikes me as so very human.
But Rashbam's connection to the Burning Bush makes me consider a different possibility. Perhaps, instead of thinking of that first encounter with God as the archetype of Moses' relationship with God, perhaps Moses has always looked back on it with regret. We admire Moses for his humility in that moment. But perhaps, all this time, Moses has been wishing that he had been brave enough, or confident enough, or clueless enough, to look at God during that moment when God appeared to him. Finally, he gets up the courage to ask for a second chance.
So many of our relationships are burdened with unasked questions; mistakes we made at the very beginning of a relationship that now seem like water under the bridge, ancient history that can't be rewritten. Remember relationships that seemed like they might hold so much promise but somehow just got off on the wrong foot. Consider conversations that forever changed the dynamic of a relationship — things we said that we wish we could take back. And think about opportunities we passed up, only to realize later what they might have meant. In a moment of honesty and vulnerability, Moses finds the words to ask for what he had once shied away from.
God's answer, I think, is instructive to any of us who might be considering whether we should take the risk of asking for the second chance or granting it to someone else. "You cannot see My face," God tells Moses (Exodus 33:20). But God finds a way to say yes to Moses, offering what we might understand to be next best thing. "I will make all My goodness pass before you," God offers Moses, giving him precise instructions about where and when to stand in order to behold it.
The past cannot be rewritten and impossible wishes cannot be granted. But if we have the courage and the faith in a relationship to ask the questions we've been burying for too long, perhaps there is still a "yes" that we might be able to receive. And if we find a way to offer that yes to someone else, we might get a glimpse of so much goodness. We might get a glimpse of what seemed impossible. We might, if we're lucky, get a glimpse at that same Presence that so many before us have sought.