Ki Tissa: looking back and looking forward, how do we see the presence of God.

And [Moses said to God] ‘Show me, I beg you, your glory.’ And God said: ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Eternal before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ And God said: ‘You cannot see My face (panai), for humans shall not see Me and live.’ And God said: ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon the rock. And it will be, while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back / behind Me (achorai); but My face shall not be seen.’ (Exodus 33:18-23)

It is a very famous scene. Moses asking for reassurance, God offering an experience of staggering intimacy. But the way it is often understood as an anthropomorphic event distances us from it. It takes on a filmic or even cartoonish quality and the nature of the encounter remains unknowable.

Yet until the late middle ages it was never read like this, and to quote the New Testament Scholar John Dominic Crossan it is important to remember that it “is not that ancient people told literal stories and we are smart enough to take them symbolically but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”.

So if we are to go back and take another look at what the text is telling us Moses saw on Sinai, we should divest ourselves of the idea that the text is recording Moses literally seeing the departing back of God as the closest we can get to the divine, and look at the words again, without the gloss of modern translation. And we should be prepared to read the metaphors and resonances in the text, rather than accept a superficial literalist reading.

So what did Moses see?

The root of the word panim, (face) occurs in various forms twenty-two times in 47 verses in this passage, meaning that there is a persistent calling our attention to it. And the midrash begins to fill in some synonyms for it – as well as ‘face’, ‘aspect’ or ’existence’ it can also be “divine justice”, “divine essence”, “divine revelation” “the secret mysteries of Torah”, “the reward of the righteous”.

The root meaning of the word “achorai” is ‘behind’ or ‘after’ – hence the translation “back” but this is not the usual word for the body part (which would be ‘gav’). It is more – the thing that follows, so achorai is “what is behind me” or “what follows me”

From this we can begin to see that Moses is not meeting an incarnate God, but encountering the divine insofar as it is possible for the human being to do so. Human beings cannot fully comprehend the essence of divinity, they can only see the evidence of God with hindsight, when they see what follows after God’s presence has touched their lives.

An early midrash suggests that what Moses sees is the shadow of God, playing with the name of Bezalel who is chosen to create the symbol of God’s presence among the people, the mishkan. Others suggest that the shadow that Moses could be seeing is where God is not – in the same way that we sometimes talk about the emptiness depression and sadness that can overshadow our lives.

The first century Aramaic translation of the text by Onkelos is intriguing: He writes “And God said, ‘you cannot see the face of My shechinah (dwelling/presence); for no one can see Me and survive. And God said, Look, there is a place prepared before Me, and you will stand on the rock, and it will be that when My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cavern of the rock, and My Word will overshadow you until I have passed; and I will take away the word of My Glory, and you will see that which is after Me, but what is before Me shall not be seen”

It is an intriguing translation, for it both chooses not to read the text in any way as a physical encounter where God has even a metaphorical body, but instead it opens up the possibility of reading the text in terms of time. Panai (my face) and Achorai (my back) are now understood as before me and after me, just as we might use them today – there is a time stretching ahead of us, and there is a life we have lived stretching out behind us. So what Moses is allowed to see is ‘behind God’ ie that which has already happened, but he is not allowed a glimpse into the future, what is to “the face of God”. This makes more sense to me – we can understand a great deal more about our lives as the time passes, we can see and make sense of ‘achorai’, but we can only speculate about the future, and every science fiction time travelling story is predicated on the dangers of interfering with the future….

If wes put ourselves into the text, we begin to see that, rather like the later message of the book of Job, no one can even begin to comprehend the secrets and mysteries of divinity, but we can see where God has been. Whether we choose to see that as glimpsing a shadow or hearing an echo, or whether we choose to understand it as making sense through reflecting on what is and what has been, it makes sense to me in my own relationship with God that very often it is not clear to me in the moment that God has been present, and yet when I reflect on a particular conversation or difficult encounter or a moment of relationship I suddenly see the shadow of God in it, and know that God was there all along.

Moses asked for reassurance, and was allowed to see the presence of God in what had happened already. And it was sufficient for him to go into the future with enough confidence to take the next steps. The future is hidden from us, but the shadowy presence of God will be in it as we pass through, and as time moves on we are promised that it will be possible to recognise that God was indeed with us on the journey.

Pekudei: Creating sacred space and creating community requires holding each other accountable

Aside

 

The description of the building of the Tabernacle continues and with great detail we learn about the physical mishkan, about the materials that went into creating it, about the cost to the community who freely gave of their wealth and skill, about how the process of creating it became a community project and one which created community as much as the building itself.  Here in Pekudei we have the equivalent of a modern AGM – the accounts are presented in detail so that everyone can see what went on, and no one could hide behind status or mystique. The sidra actually begins “These are the records (Pekudei) of the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding”

            The building of the Tabernacle was a direct result of the building of the golden calf.  After Aaron had given in to the request to build a god figure that the people could see, once Moses had disappeared into the top of the mountain and didn’t seem to be coming back, God had reluctantly realised that the people needed more than blind trust, more than simple faith – they needed something to hold on to.  So, having attempted to build a god-figure that they could see, God moved them on to constructing a building for the God they could not see – and than of course gave the added twist that this building would not in fact be the dwelling place of God – if they built it said God, then God would dwell among THEM.

            The people were very busy building the mishkan. Though God had provided the blueprint, and had engaged the architect and builders so to speak in Bezalel and Ohaliav, the fact remained that there was a lot more to do, and we are told repeatedly in biblical narrative and in the midrash that ALL the people were involved – both in terms of giving to the mishkan and in terms of supervising or of being accountable to.

            The purpose of building the structure is a little ambiguous – clearly it was needed for the people to have some tangible and existing sign that God was among them, but the greater agenda seems to have been that not only did the people need a sense of the proximity of God, they needed too to feel the support of their companions.  The building of the mishkan was in reality the way to build the community – its values, its processes, its vision.  It also gave the people a much needed task – subsisting in the desert waiting to go into battle in some nebulous future cannot have been easy for them, and must have sapped morale and caused them to question the meaning of their existence.  It is as if God responded to the anxiety of the people when they thought that Moses had gone and they were leaderless by giving them a commission to undertake – in effect God decided to keep the people busy, as they would then not get into the sort of trouble they did around the Golden Calf. Being busy meant they would also stop complaining – a habit they seemed to have polished into an art form already.  So God gave them a task and they formed themselves into a committee and threw themselves into the job.  When the mishkan was completed, and they were busy giving their accounts in sidra Pekudei, one commentator tells us that God said “Woe is Me, for now they will turn their attention away from creativity and working together, and once more lean towards destruction and separation.!

            The writer of that insight certainly understood how the Jewish community can behave – pulling together in times of crisis or shared values, bickering and pulling apart at other times.

                       So, if the purpose of the building was really to create a way of behaving together, so as to build the people into a community, the end of the project must have been a critical time for the Israelites.  I think that that is hinted at in the way the narrative develops, for the other major theme of Pekudei is the robes of the priesthood, and the mechanisms for developing that whole priestly structure, and this of course will lead us into the themes that will be preoccupying us over the next weeks of Torah readings – Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, is largely about the inner workings of the cohanim, the priestly leadership who will have responsibility for the worship of the people.

            But  before we move on to the priesthood, let’s stay for a while with the twin theme of building and of community, what is known in the trade as minyan and binyan. 

We have always been a travelling people.  We have built buildings and then left them behind. What is of prime importance to our people isn’t the place we live or worship in, but what we do in it, not the material structure but the structure of our community. That said, the space in which we come together as a community – our Beit Knesset, the house of meeting which also acts traditionally as Beit Midrash – house of study, and Beit Tefillah – house of prayer, is hugely important for us.  It is the space in which we become a kehilla, the area where we function as part of the Jewish community.  So while rabbinic priority is always on minyan – community, rather than binyan – building, and while we attach more importance to a group of people creating a cemetery and a school before they create a synagogue – and indeed why we teach that any clean and respectable room can function as a prayer hall – it doesn’t have be dedicated or specially consecrated to make it ‘holy’ – we do care very much for our religious buildings.  There is a reason for this, and it can be traced to the building of the mishkan – we learn that how we create and treat sacred space is reflected in how we create and treat each other as people with whom we have a profound bond of covenant.

While the mishkan was the dwelling place of God, it is no accident I think that modern Hebrew has taken the root word shachen and turned it into the word for the local community. In English we live in suburbs – places less than the more important city around which we are arranged, but in Hebrew we live in sh’chen’ut – in a neighbourhood, a place of community.

There is a connection between our sacred space and our community –  a connection so deep and intense that we can create one by creating the other.  Sometimes we see this in the bonds we have with old synagogue buildings – it seems to me that every week there is a letter in the Jewish press about an old – sometimes even abandoned – synagogue needing to be saved for the community.  Sometimes we see the connection in the processes – just as community was built as mishkan was built, so we generate our community and deepen it by involving ourselves in the continuing development of our shared building. 

            This is an ongoing movement for us.  Our building becomes emblematic of our inner belief system, it both shapes us and must be shaped by us.  Sometimes that is difficult and we can get bogged down in detail – the sort of detail that Pekudei is also full of – how much money, how many hooks or nails, who paid for what, where the money went, who said it should…. That detail is important because it shows that all decisions made for the community must be transparent and open to all, it shows that no-one is above accounting for their actions, it shows too that leadership – in this case of the craftsmen Bezalel and Ohaliav – must be given to people who are capable and who understand more than just the details – Bezalel is described as having chochma, bina and da’at – not as being a chabad hasid, but as having wisdom, understanding and knowledge, in other words the widest possible sensitivity to information and how it is used.  He must have been good at the details, but he was good too at the overall vision of what was to be created. And importantly, he helped the community come together in order to create both binyan and minyan.