And the Eternal One said to Moses, "I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name." He said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" And [God] answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show," continuing, "But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live." (Exodus 33:17-20)
So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai, as the Eternal had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets with him. The Eternal came down in a cloud―and stood with him there, proclaiming the name Eternal. 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 the parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations." (Exodus 34:4-7)
The mystical quest to be closer to God is universal. Who would pass up a chance to sit down with the Creator over a latte to discuss the essential questions of the universe: Why was the world created? Why do bad things happen to good people? Who are You, God? Why do You do the things You do?
Even Moses, a man who had spoken with God face-to-face (Deuteronomy 34:10), yearned to understand God more intimately. In Parashat Ki Tisa he asks, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence" (Exodus 33:18). In this simple phrase, we glimpse Moses's yearning to see and experience all that God is. Sadly though, in spite of the fact that he stands in God's favor, Moses's request is denied.
What then should we make of the mystical quest in Judaism? Are those of us who seek to know God always going to be met with disappointment on some level? Consider the famous story in the Babylonian Talmud,Chagigah 14b, about the Sages who entered God's Presence in the pardes, or "orchard." Our Rabbis taught that four men entered an orchard: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai gazed at God and died. When Ben Zoma looked at God, he became ill. Acher, also known as Rabbi Elisha, became a heretic as a result of his mystical experience. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to depart from his encounter with God unscathed. In this passage, it is clear that to aspire to spiritual union with God means risking danger to body and soul. If in Judaism we cannot see God and live, what is the point of trying to glimpse God at all?
Humility and Simple Service
In his book Liberal Judaism, Eugene Borowitz shares a teaching of the great Chasidic master Abraham (d. 1776): "When a mystic climbs the heights of the spiritual life, becoming all that a human being can be," Abraham taught, "he learns humility . . . the most important thing one can do is simply serve God" (Eugene B. Borowitz, Liberal Judaism [New York: UAHC Press, 1990], p. 177).
Through his mystical experience, Moses learns two important lessons: the importance of humility and the value of simple service to others. In his quest to see God's glory, he instead finds himself humbly bowing low in the cleft of a rock. One can imagine God's looming presence towering over the tiny Moses. A giant hand shields Moses's view until only God's back is in focus. This scene reminds us that as human beings we are not God's equals, but rather exist on a very different level. However close Moses is to God, it is clear that man is minuscule in comparison.
In glimpsing only God's back, Moses also learns that when he walks with God, he will never lead, but may only follow. This point leads to the second part of Abraham's teaching: Moses will never be God's equal, but he can walk in God's ways and become closer to the Divine through simple service. Interestingly, when Moses asks to witness God's glory with his own eyes, God responds by saying, "I will make all My goodness pass before you . . . and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show" (Exodus 33:19). The biblical writer is placing emphasis here not on God's physical attributes, but rather on the importance of God's ethical intervention in the world. Moses learns that God is most fully seen and experienced through divine acts of goodness, grace, and compassion.
Walking in God's Ways
So what is our mystical quest as Reform Jews? Though we are cautioned in both biblical and Rabbinic tradition to avoid trying to see God's face, we trust that we can become closer to God's Presence through simple acts of service. These simple acts are known in our tradition as g'milut chasadim, "acts of loving-kindness."
Rabbinic Judaism acknowledges the link of service and the mystical path in the following text from the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a:
"Follow Adonai your God . . ." (Deuteronomy 13:5). What does this mean? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God's Presence? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One, praised be God. As God clothed the naked, for it is written, "And God Eternal made outfits of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21), so you shall clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, for it is written (after the description of Abraham's circumcision), "The Eternal appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre" (Genesis 18:1), so you should visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be God, comforted those who mourned . . . and so should you comfort the mourners. The Holy One, blessed be God, buried the dead . . . and so should you bury the dead.
We find ourselves firmly on the mystical path when we are engaged in acts of social justice, when we are helping to clothe the naked. The way to God becomes clear when we are engaged in acts of chesed, "kindness," such as visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. We are charged with becoming active and caring members of a sacred community. As mere mortals, we may never know the answers to life's most difficult questions. But each one of us has the opportunity and the obligation to make divine mercy manifest.
By the Way
[Rabbi Pearlman writes: In their commentary on these passages, the Sages imagine God in prayer garb.]
He said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" Moses saw that it was a time of favor, thus he was feeling strong and asked God to reveal a greater deal of understanding than any other person had ever experienced. (Ramban on Exodus 33:18)
"All My goodness." The time has come to show you as much divine goodness as you can comprehend. . . . In accordance with this procedure in which you see Me, enwrapped in a tallit and reciting the Thirteen Attributes, you should teach Israel to do so. (Rashi on Exodus 33:19)
"Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back" (Exodus 33:23). Rav Chana bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Chasida: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moses the knot of t'fillin that is worn at the back of His head. (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 7a)
Have you ever had a mystical experience?
Why do you think Jewish tradition cautions against coming in direct contact with the Divine Presence?
How can service to the community cause a person to feel more spiritually aware?
Rabbi Michelle D. Pearlman is rabbi at Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern, PA.
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