This week’s Torah portion has so much going on. There are lots of instructions regarding the building of the Tent of Meeting, the sort of portable Temple to be used in the desert. The architects are appointed, how it is to be built is explained, the rules of what Aaron and the other priests will do once the Tent of Meeting is ready are laid out. Then G-d reminds us, that though the Israelites will work for 6 days at a time on this huge project, on Shabbat, everyone must stop and rest. This is particularly important to remember this week, as we celebrate Shabbat Across America and remember that this is an important commandment that has kept the Jewish people throughout the ages. We may celebrate the Shabbat differently now, as Reform Jews, but we still stop and remember Shabbat. It also has the iconic incident with the golden calf, which itself could have innumerable things to say about it, as well as the smashing and reconstruction of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
This parasha also has one of my favorite moments in the Bible, an experience a friend of mine once referred to as “G-d showing Moses his butt.” Moses demands of G-d, “Show me your glory!” and G-d responds, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see it and live.” But G-d agrees to let that “glory” pass by Moses and Moses can see it from behind. G-d says, “I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.”
What does all that mean?! Well, here are some visual aids for what that might have looked like literally, I have the mountain face with the cleft in it here, and a Moses stick figure, and Moses fits inside the cleft, so he can’t see what’s happening on either side. G-d (please don’t read any megalomania into my playing G-d in this scenario, but, you know, I’m bigger than the cutout mountain and stick figure, and I have hands, so it works for this representation) puts a hand out [I demonstrate as I explain], and walks in front of the cleft, and then takes G-d’s hand away after the face has passed, and Moses can see G-d’s backside, until that, too, passes behind the rock. But do we really believe that G-d has a hand in that literal sense that can cover eyes like a game of peek-a-boo? Or that G-d has a butt? Do we believe in such a personified G-d?
Onkelos, the famous convert and commentator in ancient times, shared that he believed “hand” meant guidance. G-d put some guidance before Moses, but soon G-d will remove that and pass by. Moses will be able to see “the backside” of his interactions with G-d, that is, as we see the past in hindsight. He will be able to maintain all that he learned in his time on the mountain, when G-d gave him so much guidance, but since G-d removes the hand or the guidance from before Moses’s eyes, Onkelos says we can learn from this that even Moses was not able to really grasp the whole Greatness of G-d. So if you don’t understand G-d, if you don’t know what to believe about the Divine, or how G-d directly guides you in your life, don’t worry. Even our great teacher Moses didn’t fully know, and he talked to G-d in a very direct way!
Life can be confusing and painful. But it can also be glorious and liberating. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to put G-d into all that. Is there a man with a long white beard in the sky watching us, who can come down to Earth and put hands before our eyes? I don’t believe that, but I do believe that sometimes G-d, unknowable as Divinity can be sometimes, still gives us guidance, and sometimes we let the opportunity to follow it pass without really seeing it, and sometimes it’s hard to look tough situations right in the face, and we only really see them from behind, in hindsight. The important thing is to learn from that hindsight. To remember the guidance that was once in front of us, to learn from every experience and take that with us as we go on in life, especially in the moments that feel like there is no guidance or hand of G-d to help us. May we all recognize the glory of G-d as it passes by us at various points in our lives, and take strength from those moments into our futures which may be as unknowable as G-d. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.