THE LESSONS OF SEEING ONLY GOD'S BACK
One of the most extraordinary images in
the Torah appears in this week's portion. Moshe (Moses) asks God
"Show me your glory." God responds that He cannot be seen by
any human being. But, God tells Moshe, "Stand in the cleft of the
rock" and "you will see My back, but My face must not be
seen." (Exodus 33: 17-23) What does this mean?
Another possibility comes to mind. Perhaps Moshe was asking God for proof of His existence. Moshe may have felt that such a proof was needed by Am Yisrael after they rejected God by building the golden calf. But such a proof does not exist. After all, if God is God, proof would limit Him. And so, God tells Moshe, "You cannot see me from the front." There is no proof of My existence. Rather, one should concentrate on understanding the characteristics of God, the benevolence of God, the kindness of God. It's these characteristics that are symbolized by God telling Moshe He can be seen from the back.
Still another approach is that Moshe was asking God, especially after the Jews were punished for having built the Golden Calf, how Divine judgment works. God's response is that decisions are not based on strict law, rather on a law that tempers justice with mercy. You cannot see me from the front, meaning that the world would not be able to exist if God judged us from the front with pure judgment alone, only from the back, only with law mingled with kindness would the world endure. Indeed, only with this mixture did God allow the Jews as a people to survive after the sin of the Golden Calf. Not coincidentally, God's thirteen attributes of mercy soon follow in the text. (Exodus 34:6-7)
One final thought. Could it be that when Moshe tells God, let me see you from the front, God responds that built into his essence is deep humility. This may be the meaning of God saying "I don't want the honor of being seen from the front, but rather modestly from the back." As God displays the trait of humility, so too should we attempt to learn the lesson of walking humbly in the world.
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