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.
The dance between Moses and God is always a complicated one, and Ki Tisa offers us no exception.
Just as Moses nears the end of his 40 days and nights atop Mount Sinai and finishing touches are being put on the tablets, God urges Moses to hurry down the mountain because God wants to be left alone to destroy the Israelites for having built the Golden Calf.
But Moses begs God not to destroy these people, telling God that doing so would bring into question God's motives in the first place and make God out to be evil. And God relents to Moses.
Yet, when Moses goes down the mountain and sees the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf his anger is uncontrollable as he infamously smashes the tablets on the ground. He asks all those who still believe in God to step forward and instructs them to slay their kin, resulting in the slaying 3,000 people.
Moses talks to the people about their sin and approaches God to seek atonement on their behalf, saying that if God chooses not to forgive the people, Moses wants to be removed from God's record.
God tells Moses that only those who have sinned will be "erased from My record" (Exodus 32:33). Then God sends a plague upon the people and informs them that while they will go to the Land promised to their ancestors, God will not be in their midst on the journey.
The back and forth between God and Moses as they express their fury at the Israelites is fascinating. Both try desperately to balance gut reactions to destroy the Israelites with the notion that the Israelites deserve their freedom after so many years in slavery (but they must learn to manage their freedom). God and Moses try to keep each other in check. While Moses tries to calm God down he himself is so consumed with anger that he not only permits, but also encourages the murder of fellow Israelites. And God, while agreeing not to destroy the entire people, still cannot bring God-self to stay as close to the people as before.
Perhaps the only factor preventing the total destruction of the Israelites was the dynamic between God and Moses: each served as a voice of (almost) reason for the other even as they each felt there was little reason for hope. While each heard fury in the voice of the other, God and Moses reminded each other that unleashing unfiltered fury could later lead to regret.
The outcome was not ideal. In fact, it was tragic. And perhaps that reflects the reality of our lives today. We know that extreme emotions can lead to extreme reactions, especially when the emotions are shared by multiple parties. But we must, at all times, try to listen to the other voice: the one that, especially when it is on our side, reminds us that we may later regret our actions; the one that can't prevent us from making mistakes, but can at least help us to make mistakes that are less severe.
Rabbi Rachel Ackerman is rabbi-educator at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD.
Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520
Haftarah, I Kings 18:1−39
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 722−725; Revised Edition, pp. 607−610