Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)
By Cantor Ken Richmond
Purim, the annual topsy-turvy holiday that we celebrated this week, provides an opportunity for thinking about God’s presence and absence, God’s quality of seeming alternately hidden or revealed, as we listen to the only Biblical book without God’s name and wonder whether the plot twists are ruled by God’s will or by lottery, and whether the vicissitudes of the world are meaningful or capricious. This tension seemed even stronger this year, the Divine presence more hidden than usual, as people of all religious and political persuasions united against a common enemy—the coronavirus. The holiday of joy took on elements of fear; some celebrations were canceled and others took place with trepidation (and attempts at improved hygiene), as a holiday of coming together as a community occurred with many of us in isolation.
Our Torah portion, Ki Tisa, also juxtaposes God’s presence and absence, sometimes in jarring ways. The parsha begins with instructions for the building of the mishkan, the ultimate community-building experience, constructed through everyone’s generosity and efforts, with the goal of encouraging God’s presence to dwell in their midst. Suddenly we read that while Moses is communing with God on Mount Sinai, the people despair in his absence, and in what they experience as a corresponding lack of Divine presence or Divine attention, attempt to fill the void by building a Golden Calf. While one could read the Divine anger that results as a perverted version of God’s presence, I prefer to see it as an acute absence in which the Levites slay 3000 of their fellow Israelites, with many more dying in a plague, parallel to the death toll at the hands of the Jews of Persia at the end of Megillat Esther.
Perhaps feeling that if he had been just a little more in harmony with God, the incident might have been avoided1, Moses then asks that God’s presence return to the people, and that God allow him to understand God’s ways. He goes on to say (33:18) “Har’eini na et Kevodecha,” “please show me your Presence.” God responds (33:19-23):
“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai, and I will grant grace to the one to whom I grant grace, and have compassion for whoever I have compassion for. But you cannot see My face, for a person may not see Me and live.” God said [further]: “Here is a place with Me. 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 will not be seen.”
Every time we read this parsha, I’m surprised and moved by Moses, who according to tradition has a incomparably close relationship with God, yet here yearns to become closer still. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, whose writings I’m studying this semester with my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader at Hebrew College, writes about a spiritual quest starting from a place of doubt, a challenge to faith that one’s mind can’t resolve. Through searching and struggle, a person may find some resolution to this doubt. This only clears the way for a new doubt, a new challenge, and perhaps another insight and resolution, ideally with the process repeating, as one ascends higher and higher rungs of a ladder. And even so, according to Rebbe Nachman, “the end of knowledge is that we do not know.” The spiritual journey begins with and is punctuated by doubt, and only by beginning with God’s absence can we hope to reach, temporarily, a sense of God’s presence. The rest of us can be relieved and emboldened by Moses having his own doubts and yearnings, and we can emulate his desire to keep striving for renewed intimacy by overcoming God’s hiddenness.
Commentators bring a variety of interpretations as to the meaning of “God’s back,” which Moses and we can sense, as opposed to “God’s face,” which we can never comprehend. Seforno says that God’s back is the lower working of the heavens, while God’s face is the machinations and motivations of the Divine Mind itself. The Hatam Sofer says that God’s back is the limited understanding that we can have of God’s actions in the world as they occur, with a greater understanding possible later, perhaps only at the end of days. The Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, says that everything puzzling and confused that people see is called “God’s back.” But no person can see God’s face, where everything is in harmony.
Sometimes we feel like we’re in a world like that of the Purim story, where God’s presence is hard to find, where we’re buffeted by forces beyond our control; we may have felt this way in some respects even before the latest challenge of the coronavirus, which threatens our health and sense of well-being, and limits the physical and social contact we depend on to form community. One may wonder if seeking God’s presence is something that we can even aspire to in an age of potential pandemic. I would argue that the search becomes even more important, and that the sense of fear and absence of God we may feel can become the catalyst for finding God’s presence in unexpected places, in people’s best efforts to keep each other safe, to care for each other, and to connect as best we can in a time of “social distancing.” We may have to settle for “God’s back,” as the Kotzker rebbe said, with everything still seeming puzzling and confused. But like Moses, we need to keep striving to see God’s face, where everything is in harmony, even if this experience may prove ephemeral, just out of reach. May Moses’ example remind us, especially in a time of uncertainty, to strive to come closer to the Divine and to other people, and in doing so, may we turn fear into caring, anxiety into moments of joy, and God’s hiddenness into revelation.
1 This insight from my teacher Rabbi Nehemia Polen
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor of Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and has also served since then as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. He is using sabbatical time to study at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School, with an expected ordination date of spring 2021.