Thursday, April 17, 2014

In the Image of a God Who Can't Be Seen

The Torah portion for the intermediate days of Passover is Exodus 33:12-34:26.

In the narrative, these verses occur shortly after our exodus from Egypt, and after Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets with the Ten Commandments.  While he is gone, the people become frightened at his absence.  They plead with Aaron to make a god for them, since they didn’t know what had happened to Moses.  In response, Aaron tells them to collect their gold, which is then melted and used to form the Golden Calf.  Moses returns from Mount Sinai, sees what the people have done and becomes furious with them, smashing the tablets as he proclaims his anger. 

And then he turns to bargain with the Eternal to allow the Israelites to continue to live.  “The people have sinned,” he argues, “but forgive them or erase me from the record.” God sends a plague to destroy the sinners and tells Moses to lead the people to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses continues bargaining with God. “Let me see Your face,” Moses begs, “You’ve singled me out to do Your work.  If You really want me to lead Your people, let me know Your ways. 

God is adamant:  “No one can see Me and live – you can tell I am with you by observing My goodness and My compassion.”

Moses persists.  God finally relents and tells Moses to stand in a cleft in a rock and God’s hand will protect him as God passes by – and then God will take away the protection of God’s hand and Moses will be able to see God’s back.  God repeats, “My face must not be seen.”

As we build a new relationship with someone, it’s typical for us to try to look beneath the surface to the real essence of the person we are encountering.  We look for all types of indicators of personality, values, and character.  As our relationship deepens, we often gaze intently into the other’s eyes, in order to glimpse the essence of who they are.  What is it they really want from us?  How do they really want us to be?  How far will this relationship go?

We are limited in our understanding of God because of our own humanity and because our language is incapable of describing the indescribable.  And, like Moses, if we try to fit God into our understanding – we encounter the same response: “My face must not be seen.”

And yet, it is a tenet of Judaism that we are all created b’tzelem eloheim (in the image of God).  How is it possible that we are created in the image of Someone Who cannot be seen? 

The Etz Hayim commentary reminds us that “in the words of the Hatam Sofer, we cannot see God directly.  We can only see the difference that God has made after the fact.  We can recognize God’s reality by seeing the difference God has made in people’s lives.”

Most of us can remember people who have “made a difference” in our lives – a parent or older relative, a teacher, a colleague, a student we have taught.  We look to our heroes – people who have made a qualitative difference in the lives of many by the leadership they demonstrated, the injustices they’ve tried to right, or the beauty they’ve brought into the lives of countless individuals. 

The difference they make, however, is not always readily apparent in the moment.  Many times, it’s only “after the fact” and upon reflection that we see the impact they’ve had upon us and others. 

Sometimes, we too are privileged to make a difference in the lives of those we touch.  Sometimes those differences are huge – saving a life; mentoring a student; donating generously of our time, money and energy to bring tikkun (repair) to the world. 

Other times, we’re unaware that our actions have made a difference – a phone call to a lonely friend, greeting a store clerk with courtesy, reaching over to hold the hand of a person in distress, letting someone else go first in line.  None of these actions (or others like them) are necessarily significant, at least to the initiator.  But to the recipient, they can truly “make a difference.”

By engaging in Godly behavior, we will help others (and ourselves) recognize God’s reality.

Questions for Discussion:

  1.  Identify someone who made a difference in your life.  Who was that person?  What were the circumstances? How did knowing that person make a difference in your life, in your circumstances, or in the person you’ve become?  Share your story with someone else.
  2. Identify a public person who you admire for the difference that he or she made in the lives of others?  What values did that person exemplify? What impact is still being felt as a result of her or his actions?
  3. Think about some of the values that you consider important.  What everyday actions can you do to make a difference in someone else’s life?

Published by the Washington Jewish Week on April 17, 2014

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