The Torah reading for this intermediate Shabbat of Passover, Chol HaMo-eid Pesach (Ex. 33:12-34:26), starts after the story of the Golden Calf. Moses, keenly aware of the failure in leadership that led to this disaster, reasonably asks for God’s help and direction. But then, he follows up with something truly extraordinary: Moses asks to actually see God:
“Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (Ex. 33:18).
Commentators throughout the generations have wondered about the timing of this unusual request. Shouldn’t Moses have chosen a more opportune moment to ask for something so extreme? Speaking as a parent, I can tell you that I am less inclined to fulfill my own children’s fantastic demands (“buy me a new remote control car” comes to mind) right after they have colored with permanent markers on my walls. Proving that my own patience is less than divine, God surprisingly grants Moses his request:
“Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen” (Ex. 33:21-23).
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland, gave weekly sermons in the Warsaw ghetto that were later compiled into the book, Eish Kodesh (“Holy Fire”). On the Shabbat of Passover in 1940, he turned his attention to this astonishing interchange between Moses and God. Why, he asks, would God need to shield Moses with a hand? Couldn’t God simply become visible after passing by? Since God is not a typical tangible being, isn’t God able to make God-self appear and disappear at will? Rabbi Shapira points our attention to a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 4a:
Israel entreated God unreasonably, saying: “Master of the Universe ‘Set me as a seal upon Your heart, as a seal upon Your arm’ (Song of Songs 8:6).” The Holy Blessed One said to her: “My daughter, you ask [for parts of Me] that are sometimes visible and sometimes not visible [because the heart and arm are often covered by clothing] but I will make [Myself] for you as something that is always visible, as it is written ‘Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands’ (Isaiah 49:16).”
In this Talmudic passage, God chastises us for asking for the wrong kind of relationship. It is too easy to connect with God’s heart, meaning God’s intellect and will, and even more so with God’s arms, God’s ability to reach out and act in the world. The story of the Golden Calf reminds us that even the Israelites who saw God’s biggest miracles firsthand didn’t hesitate to turn around and worship a mere statue a few months later after those big miracles were done. History, our tradition tells us, is filled with periods of God being “hidden,” hester, from our perception — but that hiddenness is only what we experience. God never actually goes away. As this Talmudic passage reminds us, no matter what seems hidden, we are indelibly engraved onto that part of God that is never hidden, never covered.
Back to Rabbi Shapira’s telling of our story, God covered Moses not out of simple physical necessity but because God wanted Moses to experience the protecting — never covered or hidden — presence of God’s hand. This is Torah for troubled times, for moments in history, like the one we find ourselves in today, when it seems as if God has abandoned humanity to its worst inclinations. These days in which divisions between people are ripping our world apart are hardly times when we feel God’s heart or God’s arm.
Shapira notes that God’s response to Moses starts with a command: “station yourself on the rock.” He takes that command to stand not only for Moses, but for all of us, and writes:
“’Station yourself on the rock’ — This is the thing that you can do to strengthen yourself and to be ‘stationed’ even during the period of apparent hester (hiddenness).” (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Eish Kodesh)
Receiving the strength we need from God starts by our own act of “stationing” ourselves where we can feel God’s hand, and our own place engraved on it. If the news on the TV is crushing your soul, station yourself where you can hear beautiful music. If the weight of the world is too heavy, station yourself where you can see the light in a child’s eyes. If the chaos is overwhelming, station yourself where you can read words of Torah.
The Haggadah reminds us that “In every generation every person must see themselves as if they personally went out of Egypt.” This charge demands that we see ourselves not only in the triumphant moment of walking through the sea, but also in the difficult stories of disbelief, disappointment, and even despair. We are the people who believed in God, we are also the people who made the calf, and we are also the people who eventually made it to the Promised Land.
On this Shabbat of Passover, our Torah reading reminds us of the strength our tradition offers us to walk with God and our people through the full journey of our liberation. Freedom is found not only in the big miracles we sang about in the seder, but also in the constant vigilance it takes to not re-enslave ourselves to despair, to disbelief, and to the crushing feelings of hopelessness the world can push us toward. We need to “station ourselves on the rock” and feel God even through all of the hester, the apparent hiddenness of this moment.
My kids know that no matter what they have done I never stop loving them. Markers on the wall and all, when they come looking for a hug, I’m always there. God, it turns out, works just the same way.
Cantor David Berger serves as the cantor of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago, IL. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the Chicago Theological Seminary, he is honored to be the inaugural Scholar in Residence for the American Conference of Cantors.
This year on Passover, we face a host of challenges different from any in recent memory. We long to congregate for the seder, but can’t do that physically. We’re adapting to new technologies and using them for worship, but need them to transcend the sense of distance they can create. And, most of all, we’re processing the threat of a rapidly spreading, sometimes lethal disease that has upset our experience of what was normal and has terrified millions. As always, in times of trouble, we can turn to Torah for wisdom on how to cope.
In the reading for Chol HaMoeid Pesach, as Cantor Berger writes above, Moses calls out to the Eternal pleading, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (Ex. 33:18). Shouldering the burden of leadership alone, he seeks the reassurance of his face-to-face relationship with the Divine. And surprisingly, God complies. Moses may not see the entire God-self: instead, God shields Moses as He passes by and reveals His back, offering His greatest prophet a unique, profound connection that culminates with the utterance of the 13 Attributes:
The Eternal One passed before him and proclaimed, “The Eternal! the Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin — yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Ex. 34:5-7)
While translations generally have God speaking here, it’s curious that commentators do not agree on who actually proclaims these attributes. Rashi, following Onkeles, says, “it was Moses who proclaimed it” (Rashi on Ex. 34:5). Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Nachmanides say that God spoke these words, as Rashbam writes:
“Although the Hebrew does not make explicit which of them proclaimed the name, the translations are correct that it was the Holy One who proclaimed it while He passed by, as the continuation of the text makes clear.” (Rashbam on Ex. 34:5)
But there’s another option: Perhaps God made it possible for both of them to utter the words together, at the same time. This would make perfect sense, as the attributes of grace, compassion, kindness, and so on, are ethical aspects of God that human beings can perceive and understand — attributes that are reflected in us.
On this particular Pesach, many of us, like Moses, are reaching out for divine reassurance. Even as we praise the gifts we have received, asserting that they are Dayeinu, “enough for us,” we still worry over real and present concerns about our health, basic necessities, livelihood, schooling, and — on a macro level — the very state of our world.
Comfort may come to us through the myriad acts of loving -kindness, selflessness, and generosity that we witness during this time. The ethical attributes shine out from the faces of healthcare workers who remain on the front lines, people who are fostering pets from shelters that have closed, people who deliver food to seniors who cannot get it for themselves, those who reach out to listen to someone having a tough time, and so many more. As we gaze at our wine cups, may they be more-than-half full. And, may we all come through this challenge whole and intact, in good health and in good spirits.
Audrey Merwin is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s communication team. She edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah, sings in the United Synagogue of Hoboken choir, leads services, and teaches in the synagogue’s learning center.
Exodus 33:12−34:26, reading for Chol HaMo-eid Pesach
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657−661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 508–512
Haftarah, Ezekiel 37:1−14; Song of Songs is read
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,660−1,661; Revised Edition, pp. 1,465−1,466