Dvar Torah by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 18th Adar I 5776, 27th February 2016
With Moshe on top of the mountain and the people going AWOL from God down below, there’s a lot going on. But even more is bubbling under the surface of this story, especially between Moshe and God. We understand the people. They are slaves at heart, who need a leader – who in the meantime has taken a 40-day leave and they have doubts about whether he will return.
Now listen to this conversation: God tells Moshe, go down because YOUR NATION which YOU took up out of Egypt has gone corrupt. I have seen this nation and they are stubborn. According to the commentary of Abarbanel, at this point God waits for a response from Moshe, who is too embarrassed to speak. So God continues: Now, allow me and I’ll devastate them and make you into a great nation.
Moshe immediately goes on the defensive: Why are you so wroth against YOUR NATION, that YOU TOOK OUT of Egypt with great might. Repent of your anger against YOUR NATION. Remember Abe and Ike and Jake and your promises to them, etc. And so God repented of his ire and desire to punish HIS nation.
Moshe descends with two stone tablets with God’s writing on them and he sees what God had seen before. He is livid. He smashes the tablets. He calls for mass cleansing and the tribe of Levi slays 3000 idol worshippers.
Moshe goes up a second time, in an attempt to appease God, although God has already said he will not destroy the people. Moshe did.
Listen to the next dialogue. Moshe says: THIS NATION (neutral) has sinned a great sin. And now please bear with their sin, and if not, erase me from your book (the Torah). To which God answers, (listen): go and guide the nation, the one I talked to you about (He can’t even say our name) and my angel will walk before you. And when the day of reckoning comes, I will reckon up their sins. And then, God brought down a plague on the idol worshippers that Moshe hadn’t gotten to.
Now comes the biggest turnaround in the whole story. The very next sentence goes back to the beginning. God says, take yourselves out of here, you and the NATION THAT YOU TOOK OUT OF EGYPT and bring them to the land that I promised their ancestors.
Moshe is trying to calm down God so that he won’t destroy Israel. But Moshe is so incensed that he instigates a cleansing. God agrees not to destroy Israel but at the same time, cannot allow himself to dwell among the people, who are stubborn and spiteful. That description sounds familiar!
Was it chutzpa or was it taking advantage of a second chance? In today’s parsha we have what might be one of the most chutzpadik statements in the Torah (even more so than Yitro telling Moshe that his way of judging the nation was wrong). Moshe has just completed a harrowing dialogue with God about the fate of the nation after the Golden Calf, and suddenly, he comes out with a most impertinent request. Let me behold your presence, he says to God. What was he thinking? God cannot be perceived, seen, taken in. As He explains a few verses later, a human cannot see me and live.
The two questions that arise are: why does Moshe ask and why now? As to the timing, Rashi immediately says, it was a good hour. God was in a good mood. He and Moshe had found a modus operandi for the Israelites. So, Moshe put in a word for himself in the hope that he would receive a positive answer too.
Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, disagrees. His reasoning is logical. Way back, when Moshe first encountered God at the burning bush, his reaction was to cover his face so as not to see God! How could such a humble, self-effacing person ever dare to ask something so impertinent? And so, the Rashbam concludes, Moshe’s request was metaphorical. Let me get to know you and your qualities better, is his interpretation.
But if we accept the Rashbam’s answer what do we do with God’s response to Moshe? He says, you can’t see me, nobody can see me and live. But I will put you in a cranny of the rock and you can see my back. That’s an answer to the literal meaning. Of course we can take the metaphorical route and say, well, God didn’t mean his physical back but rather the effect of his qualities on all that occurs in the world.
At the same time, the Rashbam’s mention of the burning bush ignites the imagination and creates an AHA! moment. Beth Kalisch, for example, sees an almost direct link between the burning bush and Moshe’s request on Mount Sinai. At that first fateful meeting at the bush, Moshe is an extremely introverted person whose self-valuation is quite low. He is not worthy, in his own mind – not to speak in God’s name, not to face Pharaoh and certainly not to see the face of God.
But a lot has happened since then. Like other famous people in the Bible, he has grown with the job. As an example, Saul, before his anointment as king, tended to hide behind the packing cases out of shame. Yet by the end of his reign he had no trouble ordering about people and trying to kill anyone who he considered a threat.
Similarly, Moshe has bested Pharaoh, split the Red Sea, extracted water from rock, ascended Mount Sinai and was now speaking to God face to face, as it were. By any criterion, these are all self-confidence building measures. This being the case, could Moshe have actually meant his question literally? Could it be that for whatever reason – the circumstances, the great emotional rush of being in the presence of the Lord – Moshe truly wanted to be granted this unfathomable request? And could it also be that he felt that he had missed the opportunity to see God the first time, at the burning bush?
In other words, perhaps this was a second chance for Moshe, one that he did not want to waste. And so – the request. One that came from the depths of his being. God’s response was kindly. I can’t do that, Moshe, God says. Because you couldn’t survive it. But I will give you a view of my back as I pass – which as I said can be interpreted as seeing God’s qualities as they pertain to the people and the world. That gives us hope – we sometimes get second chances and if we have the courage, we can act in the way we didn’t the first time.
But Moshe’s question and the whole situation generate another question. Do we ever see anyone’s true face? Do we ever know what others are really thinking – even when they tell us? Do we ever know the depths or sources of a person’s anger or happiness or spite? The closest we ever come to knowing is with little children. They will tell us what they are thinking and why, even if it means spilling the beans about what their parents or family friends have said and would have preferred to keep under wraps. If we know them well, we can even understand why they hit their sister or tore up a book or stormed off in a huff or brought the pacifier to their baby brother.
Later it’s impossible to know. So many factors, large and small, shape and distort our perceptions and our evaluations. Some people are kind, courteous and cheerful-looking, and you’d never know that they have suffered or are in the midst of some terrible tragedy. Others actively repel people yet beneath their exterior they are caring, sensitive individuals. In some, the internal and the external coincide but we will never know what is really going on beneath the surface.
Moshe wants to know God. God acquiesces but only indirectly: see my back. Moshe then sums up the qualities in what are called the 13 attributes: merciful, compassionate, patient, loving and faithful, forgiving and pardoning sin, among others. But also bringing retribution on those who deserve it. Compassion and justice.
We see around us people who try to embody the compassionate attributes and others who actively seek to implement only the retribution aspects. Both are needed. But in our own society, in this period of perennial danger, every bit of compassion, no matter what its underlying source, is welcome.