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.

Vayechi – How we live our lives, and how we live on through how we lived our lives

The book of Genesis comes to a close with this sidra, and many of the themes within it are addressed, if not resolved.  

The stories of sibling rivalry which began in the very first family with the tension between Cain and Abel and which continue down through the patriarchal enerations finally come to some sort of resolution, with Joseph choosing not to use his power over his brothers to hurt them, as even after all these years they fear he still might. His sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, also do not argue with each other, even when the younger is given special treatment by their grandfather Jacob. 

 The themes of blessing – in particular the special blessings from father to son, are also addressed: firstly in the blessing by Jacob of Joseph’s two children and the deliberate switching by the bless-er to give the younger one the more advantageous blessing. Somehow when there is no betrayal or rivalry between the bless-ees this is seen as a kind of concluding of the story of dysfunctional sibling relationship, though of course it does leave room for the jealousy to break out once more in the future. But while Joseph protests, his sons do not and sibling rivalry is not a particular theme of the later books of Torah.

 Blessings and the terrible burdens that can accompany them are also made explicit in the way that Jacob speaks to his sons on his deathbed– Reuben is as unstable as water, Shimon and Levi given to violence, Judah has the vigour and nobility of a lion, Zebulun would have a favourable territory with good coastline, Issachar is a large boned ass – physically strong and placid, Dan will be a judge but also a wily cunning foe, Gad would be constantly raided and raiding others, Asher will be happy and rich, Naftali would be both physically graceful and eloquent of speech, Joseph would be fruitful and honourable in the face of difficulties, someone who would surpass his victimhood, Benjamin would be a ravening wolf – warlike and terrifying.

 Can we say that these are blessings in any sense that we understand today? They seem to be comments on the characters of his children for them to learn from, or aspirations for them to live up to, rather than calling for the protection and support of God for them. 

 It also leads us to ask the question: is the expectation of our parents something that can or should shape our lives?

 Many of the blessings refer to the names given to the boys at birth – Dan, Asher, Gad, Naftali and Joseph all have names which imply characteristics or aspirations. Some of the blessings refer to actions we already know about – Reuben having betrayed his father with his concubine, Shimon and Levi whose violence to the Shechemites when their prince took Dinah has caused real heartache to Jacob that it seems he cannot let go even as he lay dying. Some of the blessings seem to refer to later events that he cannot have even dreamed of. The descriptions contained in these final words have a power and a hold long after their creator has left the scene.

 The deathbed scenes of Jacob and Joseph are narrated dispassionately in Torah. The point is made that both father and son are keen to be buried back in their ancestral home, not in Egypt where they are accorded so much honour. Both remember the promise that has been passed down their family, that God will remember them and will bring about their establishment upon the Land we know as Israel. They are pragmatic about their dying, passing on no material artefacts but certainly transmitting ethical imperatives to their descendants. Connection to the Land and honest evaluation of oneself along with proper thought about how one behaves in life, seem to be the two fundamental lessons they have to give their family. 

 Reading this final sidra in Genesis, named “Vayechi – And he lived” which primarily details the transmission of values after death, we are prompted to ask “What can we leave to our children that will resonate in their lives long after we ourselves are gone?” 

 One answer is the expectations we lay down for our children that they may internalise without our even knowing it – a sense of right and wrong, of honourable and ethical behaviour, of common purpose with our both our particular family and with the rest of humanity. We can teach them about God, about our history, about our connectedness to the other. We can teach them that one life is simply that – a life well lived will provide a strong link to both past and future, that there is a longer time scale than our own conscious existence. We can teach them that actions have consequences, that behaviour shapes character as much as character can shape behaviour. We can teach them that there is a great diversity in the world, and that everyone contributes something of value, be they passive or go getting, be they solid citizens or free spirits. 

 What is important is that we too begin to evaluate honestly our selves and the life we have lived so far, think seriously about what will be read into how we have lived, consider how we will be remembered after we are gone. 

 The end of a book of Torah is always a powerful reminder that endings are part of the cycle, and this particular sidra, with its emphasis on both life and death remind us to take a moment and consider. A lot of the most painful problems in the stories of the human relationships in this book are finally ironed out as people forgive, let go, learn, change. We are ready to face the next book which will take us into a different world, full of people who remember their history and people who have forgotten everything that came before. Winter is here, we are into the last month of the year and we are becoming aware of how the secular year is turning.  Many of us will try to achieve some kind of closure on unfinished problems before embarking on another new year.  But before we do that, there is just time to pause and to remember the stories of the early families in Genesis– Vayechi – how we live will impact on a future we can only imagine.