This week's parashah, Ki Tisa, portrays several dramatic scenes. In one of them, we find the Israelites camped below Mount Sinai. Moses has been atop the mountain for nearly forty days, and the people are awaiting his return.
All at once, they lose patience or faith and demand a visible sign of God's Presence in their midst. They want Aaron to help them build a golden calf, the epitome of what was just forbidden by the Second Commandment.
Was this an unreasonable request or merely a sign of insecurity? Was the golden calf really an idol representing a god or just a visible means of connecting to God?
We know from the report of this incident in Deuteronomy 9:20 that God was very angry with Aaron for helping to build the golden calf and threatened to kill him. It was only after Moses' intercession on his behalf that he was spared. Worse than this, some three thousand of our people were killed by their fellow Levites for the role they played here.
Yet, if that is the case, why does God react so differently when a short time later Moses himself seems to express the very same need and desire? In Exodus 33:18, Moses says, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" In other words, Moses wants to see God.
Now God might have responded in anger and ruled such a request out of order. God might have quoted the words of Ben Sirach (Eccles. 3:21): "Do not pry into things too hard for you or examine what is beyond your reach . . . what God keeps secret is no concern of yours."
Instead, God tries to find a way to meet Moses' request, at least partially. God will pass before Moses, while he is hidden in a cleft in the rock, so Moses can see God's back. While some of the people may have improperly sought an idol to worship, Moses like so many of us wanted to be assured that God's Presence would continue to be with him. He felt a certain insecurity and a need to be connected more directly to God.
Some say that all Moses really saw was the shadow that falls on our lives when God is no longer there. He was able to distinguish between those actions and situations that are filled with holiness and those that are not. Others, like the Chatam Sofer, teach that God's presence may be perceived only after the fact, when we look back on the experiences of our lives. It seems as if God is acknowledging the legitimacy of our need to be connected more directly to what is godly, to see God's Presence.
Perhaps that's why God chose Betzalel to be the architect of the Tabernacle. Betzalel means "in the shadow of God." It is as close as we can come to seeing God.
So think back over your life. When have you seen the shadow of God? Did you realize it at the time?
For further reading
For Those Who Can't Believe, Harold M. Schulweis (HarperCollins, 1994).
Rabbi Joel E. Soffin is rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom, Succasunna, New Jersey and founder of Jewish Helping Hands.