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Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Pesach: The Cleft in the Rock

  • Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Pesach: The Cleft in the Rock

    Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, Holidays Exodus 33:12-34:26
D'var Torah By: 

On the Sabbath during Passover, we take a break from the sacred and the profane, from sin and sacrifice, from what fits and what is unfit; we set aside all things Leviticus and step into another world. This week's special portion carries within it one of the most luminous and awe-inspiring images in all of the Torah: Moses, cradled gently in the hand of God, emerges from the cleft of the rock to glimpse a sight of the Divine Presence just as the Glory of God passes by (Exodus 33:21-23).

This vision is one of the most unabashedly human representations of God as can be found anywhere in the Bible. God has a face, which Moses cannot see. God has a hand, which protects Moses until the moment when God's shining Presence has passed by. And God has a back, which Moses glimpses momentarily, though we have precious little description of what this vision of "God from behind" may have looked like.

Such anthropomorphisms-in this case, visions of God in human form-drive the classic interpreters of the Torah to distraction. They try desperately to recast these physical characteristics as metaphor and literary device rather than the touchable, tangible, actual descriptions of God's Presence which, we might-on their surface- consider them to be. So strong is the pull of the second commandment not to create for ourselves a picture or an idol of God's physical form that the very allusion to any human characteristics becomes the source of endless consternation and debate.

I have always sat in wonder at our tradition, which posits an invisible and unknowable God who, nevertheless, has the power to affect our physical world through signs and wonders, who harbors human emotions like compassion and anger, and who has the power to carve ten divine words with a finger on the face of a stone (30:18). Somehow, such completely human descriptions of the Presence of God in our world can pass muster, and yet even the slightest mention of God's physical characteristics launches a legion of commentators to smooth out the "more primitive language" within the text.

And yet, how can we better "translate" these words than to read them as they are, in the beautifully descriptive and wondrously human way in which they are written:

And the Eternal said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, 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." (Exodus 33:21-23)

All language is metaphor. All description is but an allusion. We can only describe what we experience through the medium of words, which are but a shadow of the emotion-laden moments they must try to represent. In Hebrew, the word for a "word," davar, is the same as the word for a "thing," davar. In other words, ours is a language in which even the words themselves have dimensions, mass, and weight.

The question for us to explore here is not why the Torah speaks of God in such anthropomorphic terms, but what these particular all-too-human words have come to represent. To do so, we must take stock of the context of that moment in time. Moses has just quelled God's anger at the Children of Israel for the idolatry of the Golden Calf. In the afterglow of reconciliation, Moses asks God for two things: that God will continue to dwell amidst the Children of Israel despite their failings; and further that Moses, having earned God's trust and admiration, might be granted a glimpse at God's Eternal Presence.

There is in God's response, a series of intended double metaphors, double meanings that can be read as God's double response to two of Moses's separate requests.

"See there is a place near Me"-Just as in the other great luminous tale of Jacob's ladder where our wayward patriarch exclaims: "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!" (Genesis 28:16). The word for "place," makom, can be taken both as a name for God and as a description of a place. It is as if HaMakom, "the God of Israel," answers Moses: "Stand with Me and I will stand with you."

"Station yourself on the rock"-Here too, there is an intended double meaning. God is called Tzur Yisrael, "Rock of Israel." This again is a promise of God's protection and again an image of Moses's nearness to God.

"I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand"-And at this greatest moment of "closeness," d'veikut the Chasidim call it, the moment of cleaving to God, becoming all but one with the Creator and Preserver of our lives-at this moment of Oneness, Moses is cradled in God's hand. And again, there is in this an image of God's closeness to Moses, and a promise of steadfastness for the Children of Israel.

God's hands are a recurrent image of God's steadfast love for Israel. As in the beautiful yet enigmatic lines from Isaiah 49:15-16: "I never could forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands, your walls are ever before Me."

What, then, can we learn from the vision of God's back, which Moses is able to glimpse as God passes by? My favorite response is a wonderfully human description found in the Talmud, which explains that what Moses saw was the knot of the leather strapped t'fillin that encircled God's head (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 7a).

God wears t'fillin? Does this mean that God prays? The image of the t'fillin is the perfect double meaning because it carries within it the Sh'ma, a prayer for Oneness-a response to Moses's request for a moment of Oneness with the Eternal One- and the paragraph that follows, the V'ahavta prayer, which reminds us that it is we who must carry God's words with us everywhere we go. But to whom would God pray, and for what? The answer I suspect, in the context of our parashah, can only be that God prays for us.

Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish thought for two decades at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

Boundaries, Divine and Human
Davar Acher By: 
Barbara Ostfeld

Does God need to clarify his boundaries with Moses? And does Moses in turn need to draw the line for the Israelites?

In Exodus 33:11 God speaks to Moses face-to-face. It is clear that they are intimates, locked in a unique relationship, as God says, "I have singled you out by name" (33:17).
But God will only go so far. When Moses begs for knowledge of God's ways, God demurs, hiding the divine face. He winds up essentially blindfolding Moses, while presenting the divine backside. Is God not saying, I love you, Moses, but this is as close as even the top-ranking human and God can get?

And then, a few verses beyond this week's portion, Moses takes this same approach with the Israelites. In 34:33, he veils his face. The veil comes off when Moses goes in to speak with God but is replaced when Moses appears before the Israelites. Is this Moses's way of saying, now that I've had this divine encounter, I must safeguard you from my radiant face? I care for you but this is as close as you and I can get.

We need God to be God. The Israelites need Moses to be Moses. Some detachment is warranted between shepherd and flock.

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld is the placement director of the American Conference of Cantors.

Reference Materials: 

Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, Exodus 33:12-34:26 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657-661; Revised Edition, pp. 592-596; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508-512