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Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

Book of Exodus

Chaps. 30:11-34:35

March 17, 2017

         Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet writes, “The loving parent responds to the distraught child’s “Tell me everything will be all right” not as a request for information, but a plea for comfort. God has no face.”

Mamet’s comment is in response to Moses’ plea to God atop Mt. Sinai, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” to which God responds, “I will make all my goodness pass before you. . . then I will take My hand away and you will see My back (literally, “afterwards”) but my face must not be seen.” (Exo. 34: 18, 19, 23)

How does one describe God? We use anthropomorphisms to express the inexpressible (God’s hands, face, back). This doesn’t mean God has two arms, two legs, or other human features. As mortals, we are limited to the vocabulary of our own existence. God is not of the physical but the spiritual. God is known not by appearance but through attributes. Mamet notes, “God specifically states that no man can encompass all of God’s presence and live. God will show only God’s goodness; that which humankind could not possibly conceive as goodness-God’s greater plan, the insignificance of man, the necessity of suffering, the likelihood of anguish, impermanence, loss, evanescence-these, as an ineluctable portion of God, are withheld.”

All we learned from God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai was God’s goodness expressed through the mitzvot (commandments) of compassion, mercy, love, and justice. Is God capable of evil? Can God bring an end to suffering? All we know for certain is God’s righteousness. When Moses asked to behold God’s presence, all he saw was his “afterwards.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains, “ God said to Moses, ‘You can see what it’s like just after I’ve been there.” Standing in the presence of God is not experiencing God’s immediate presence but His illuminating essence.

For the Jew, the Torah is the road map to understanding the afterward, to embracing the attributes of God, to making them a part of us. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an immediate insight, self-evident as light. God is not something to be sought in the darkness with the light of reason. God is the light.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel


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