The Torah reading for the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot is taken from parashat Ki Tisa, whose central event is the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath.
In His anger, God first threatens to destroy the people and begin over with Moses and his descendants, but in response to Moses’s prayer, God relents and does not impose this punishment.
Next Moses returns to God and says, “Yes, the people have committed a great sin, but if You cannot forgive them ‘erase me from the record You have written’” — i.e., let me die. God responds that only the guilty will be punished and He commands Moses to lead the Israelites as he has been told.
Moses then approaches God once more and pleads, “Let me know Your ways” — or, perhaps a better translation, “Let me know Your nature, Your way of acting.” The Talmud in Berakhot explains it this way: Moses said before the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the universe, why is it that there is a righteous person who experiences good, a righteous person who experiences evil, a wicked person who experiences good, a wicked person who experiences evil?”
“I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name…. But, you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live…. 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.”
God denies Moses permission to learn His essence — to see His face —
but He permits him to see His back. The Talmud understands the word “aharai” not as “My back,” but as “what is behind Me,” and explains that God showed Moses the knot of His tefillin.
We cannot see God, nor can we know God’s essence. At most, Moses was able to see the knot of God’s tefillin, what was left after God passed by.
As much as we might want, we cannot answer Moses’s questions about good and evil, reward and punishment, why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. We cannot know why the world works the way it does. It’s not our place to understand God.
What we can see are the traces left by God’s presence. We can see the difference God has made after the fact. We can recognize God’s reality by seeing how God has touched people’s lives — and, of course, our own lives as well.
And that is a great and wonderful gift.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.