Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach

18 Apr

After the sin of the Golden Calf, God contemplates destroying the Israelites, but Moses pleads on their behalf and God relents. Where this week’s Torah reading picks up, God has agreed not to outright destroy the Israelites, but hints to Moses that he is considering letting the Israelites make the journey to the Promised Land without Divine protection. Rather than just asking God to reconsider, Moses instead strangely pleads to be allowed to see God’s Presence. God agrees in part, telling Moses that although no one can survive such direct contact with God, God 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 (Ex. 33:22-23).” After this strange request is partially fulfilled, God decides to relent in His punishment of the Israelites, reveals the thirteen Divine attributes of mercy (which we invoke on fast days and Yom Kippur), and then vows to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.


While no explanation is given for God’s apparent change of mind, this is the least of the theological difficulties this passage creates. Because God does not have a physical body, the Rabbis attempted to determine what it was that Moses actually saw. The answer, as presented by Rav Chana bar Bizna in the name of Rabbi Shimon Chasida is that Moses saw the knot on the back of God’s metaphorical tefillin (Berachot 7a).


The Gemara had already proved that God wears metaphorical tefillin, and in that discussion, attempts to determine what passage might be written in the various compartments of God’s metaphorical tefillin. They determine that just as our tefillin contains verses praising God for God’s uniqueness and for taking us out of Egypt, God’s tefillin must contain verses with similar themes (Berachot 6a). Included among these verses is Deut. 4:34: “has any god miraculously taken for himself one nation out of the midst of another, with tests and signs and wonders; with war and with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power as The Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?”


The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 16th & 17th century, Poland) explains that tefillin are worn as a sign of the special relationship between God and the Jewish People, and cites as a proof text the well-known verse “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me” from Song of Songs (which is also traditionally read on Shabbat Chol Hamoed of Passover). While explaining how He will only partially grant Moses’ request to behold the Divine Presence, God tells Moses “I will make all of My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name The Lord before you, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show (Ex. 33:19).” Moses, who had refused a glimpse of the Divine Presence at the Burning Bush, not considering himself worthy, now asks God for this favor to see what he had previously asked not to see so that he could communicate his plea for the Israelites to God as directly as possible, and in return, God showed Moses the sign of His love for the Israelites, relented from His punishment, and forgave His people, then set out with them to fulfill His promise to our forefathers to bring them to the Promised Land.

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