For most of our congregations, the procession of Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah will begin with a textual reminder that Israel "knows" that Adonai is God. (Deuteronomy 4:35) Gates of Prayer translates the passage this way: "You have been shown [har'eita], that you may know, that the Eternal alone is our God; there is none beside Him." (page 538) As much as anything else in our tradition, this liturgical moment is a clear and unambiguous declaration of faith, based on the empirical experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. They "know" that Adonai is God because they have "seen" what God can do.
Our Torah portion for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot (Exodus 33:12-34:26) prepares us for Simchat Torah. On the Shabbat before the Simchat Torah celebration, we are given a strong textual reminder that seeing is believing. It comes in the midst of a crisis of faith for, of all people, Moses: "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways" (Exodus 33:13) followed by "Oh, let me behold [har'eini] Your Presence!" (Exodus 33:18)
Moses is an ordinary human being with an extraordinary relationship to God. Time and again, the Torah reminds us just how human Moses is: Moses has a violent temper. He gets frustrated easily. He is sensitive to criticism. He has a healthy ego. When all the pressures of leadership and its responsibilities become too much to bear, Moses declares a need to see God, to actually experience the reality of God's existence. His is more than a crisis of faith. Moses has a burning need to know that despite everything that has gone wrong between Israel and God (e.g., the golden calf episode), God still favors Moses.
For skeptics, there is no proof of God's existence. For the faithful, there is no denying God's existence. The rest of us-we who exist day to day with very human questions and doubt-need to look for God in the daily experiences of our lives. If Moses is allowed an occasional crisis of faith, we can be permitted our own moments of fear and trembling. Perhaps as we walk with our children around the synagogue, flags waving, Torah scrolls held high, we should remind ourselves that through this experience we can see the glory of God.
Questions for Discussion
- On what other occasions does Moses express anger at God?
- Does the Torah "prove" that only Adonai is God? If so, how?
- In what way is Moses' crisis of faith connected to the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot?
For Further Reading
- The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, pp. 655ff.
- A Companion to the Authorized Daily Prayerbook by Israel Abrahams, p. 149.
- Judaism: Development and Life by Leo Trepp, pp. 294 ff.
Rabbi Mark L. Shook is the spiritual leader of Congregation Temple Israel in St. Louis, MO.
In Ki Tisa, the Torah reading for this Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Moses said to Adonai, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" And God answered, "I will make all My Goodness pass before you. . . . But . . . you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.". . . 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." (Exodus 33:18-23)
During Sukkot, we are instructed to remember our wandering in the wilderness. The sukkot that we erect remind us of the fragile, temporary structures that our ancestors built as they wandered through the desert. Imagine how those years must have felt. Imagine the uncertainty of not knowing where you would be living next. Imagine relying on God and faith to put food into your belly. Imagine the work that it took just to survive each day-to gather the wood, build the fire, mend the clothes, care for the children, and pack and unpack over and over again. When there is so much to do, who has time to even think of seeing God's Presence? Moses must have considered himself fortunate, indeed, to have had a glimpse of where God had been-to know for certain that God had been close by.
At first glance, our lives seem so much more secure than those of our ancestors. Yet, as Rabbi Shook reminds us, we, too, face doubts and uncertainties every day: Will our workday go smoothly? Will our family stay healthy? Where is my child right now? How is my partner feeling? When things do not go well, our doubts and uncertainties increase-just as they did for our biblical ancestors. We spend so much of our lives wandering in the wilderness that who among us has time to think about seeing God's Presence? I know that I, for one, often end each day too tired to reflect on the miracles of that day: the child who chanted a perfect Torah portion; the mother who sits by her child's sickbed with her faith intact; the incredible mountain views I enjoy on my drive to work every day; and the new melody for an old prayer.
We are blessed that our tradition offers us-in fact, instructs us-to take the time to reflect on the miracles of life. Every Shabbat we are given the unique opportunity to stop and take stock of our week. When we approach the new week full of gratitude for the gifts of our family, our friends, and the beautiful world in which we live, then we, too, can feel that we have "seen God's back." During this season in particular, it is appropriate to reflect on our blessings. We construct our lives so carefully, but in the end, like the sukkot we build, our constructions are fragile and semi-permanent. Only when we recognize the miracles in our everyday life can we understand what is really important. We may not see God's face in the cleft of a rock, but we may recognize God's hand in our lives and know, like Moses, that we have seen where God has been.
Questions for Discussion
- Why does God tell Moses, "I will shield you with My hand" as Moses waits in a cleft of the rock?
- What are some of the blessings you encounter in your life every day?
For Further Reading
- Six Jewish Spiritual Paths: A Rationalist Looks at Spirituality by Rifat Sonsino, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2000.
- The Art of Blessing the Day by Marge Piercy, New York: Knopf, 2000.
Kay Greenwald is the cantor of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, CA.
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512