We remember Moses' anger and fury as he discovers that his brother Aaron was co-opted into building a golden statue that the Israelites could worship as a deity. And we recall God's anguish and frustration as God contemplated the severity of the punishment that would be inflicted.
What we don't often remember is the peaceful and calming moment that God and Moses shared as the covenant between God and the Jewish People was re-affirmed:
Moses said: "Oh, let me behold Your presence!" And God answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you [...] But you cannot see My face [...] 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 must not be seen."
Much has been made in our tradition regarding this strange choreography. On the one hand, Moses was clearly being entitled to directly experience God's presence. And on the other hand, what Moses experienced was a "trace" of God, rather than God's "actual" presence.
Rabbi Moses Sofer (aka Chatam Sofer, of 19th century Eastern Europe) commented on these verses that "one is only able to recognize God's ways and behavior after the fact. Only after time has passed and it is possible to link together all the facts, can one understand a little of the way God acts."
First of all, I find it affirming that Chatam Sofer grappled with some of the same theological questions that we do. Implicit in his comment is an awareness that there are difficult moments in the course of our lives when God's presence feels totally absent. When we, or someone we love, is diagnosed with an illness. When someone we cherish dies. All the more so when that loss is senseless.
What about Chatam Sofer's answer to these theological crises of faith? He suggests that it's all a matter of perspective. We have to give ourselves the gift of time. As the months and the years pass, he argues, we will be better situated to realize how God's presence infuses every moment of our lives - even the tragic ones - with meaning.
I don't have the same faith or confidence that Chatam Sofer does. It's not obvious to me that every expression of suffering in the world is endowed with Divine Intention and Meaning.
In fact, I read this week's Torah portion a little differently. I don't see Moses' moment with God as being a splendid theophany. I think it's kind of lousy (for lack of a better word) that Moses only got to see 'God's backside.' If seeing God's face represents a full "meeting" of God, then God's backside is the complete opposite. It suggests to me a void or absence. It affirms to me that Moses, just like us, struggled with God's absence at this moment in his life.
What does it mean that we embrace a tradition that allows for both readings of the text: one that suggests an absolute and unquestioned faith in God, and one that makes its peace with the profound and deafening sound of God's silence/absence all too often in our individual lives?
On this Shabbat, I hope it's a reminder to you that both responses (and all of the ones in between these two extremes) are valid. And that - whatever you think about God - that you know that you and your questions (and your answers!) are welcome here.
Rabbi Jeffrey Brown
PS: As a friendly reminder, Cantor Becker and I are always available if you'd like to reflect with us about a difficult moment in your life. Sometimes a first step towards trying to comes to terms with our suffering is to simply share part of the burden with another...
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
I want to recommend two contemporary poetic responses to Exodus 33. The first is Merle Feld's "Sinai Again".
Compare that to Lea Goldberg's short poem entitled "Somewhere in Samaria":
I picked a wildflower and tossed it away. I waited
two days in the rain at a forgotten station.
My God, you'll never believe in me again! I passed by
so close and didn't recognize you.