Parashah of the week: Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed

“You will see My back, but My face shall not be seen” Exodus 33:23


Our ancient rabbis compare the debacle of the golden calf to an act of brazen adultery which creates painful distance between marital partners. Surprisingly, this serious relational crisis between our people and the Infinite Source is not only resolved amicably, but it actually becomes an opportunity for increased intimacy.

According to our great medieval commentator Rashi (on Exodus 33:18), Moses senses that once God has forgiven the idolatrous act itself, there is an auspicious moment, “a time of favour” in which God is open to Moses's advances, so to speak.

The aftermath of a terrible crisis is thereby transformed into one of the most tender interactions between a human and the Divine. Moses requests: “Please show me Your glory!” and the verse above is part of God's response. God says that Moses will see God's “back”, but not God's “face”. That is to say, while Moses perceives more of the Infinite One than any other human mentioned in our entire tradition, there is more – far more – that he is not shown.

The great Chasidic master, Rebbe Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730–1797), offers a powerful teaching on this episode. He begins by citing a passage in the Zohar where our sages relate “face” to this world and “back” to the world to come, which is the opposite of what we might expect. After all, what we encounter here in this world might seem to relate to what Moses could see – the Divine “back” – as opposed to what he could not apprehend.

The rebbe explains that a righteous person – which includes all of us, at least in potential – never stops striving to grow. We constantly move “from strength to strength” (Psalms 84:8). As we evolve, so does our level of understanding.

Each time we grow, our new degree of awareness is like the “face” of the Divine, and we are awed by its splendour. Due to our human tendency for comparison, our previous perceptions, which were also once like the awesome “face,” now seem like the mere “back”.

The rebbe emphasizes that this process is a healthy and natural part of being truly alive. Our previous insights were important and helped us to arrive at this point in our journeys, where we are now ready to expand the horizons of our consciousness and see a bigger picture.

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