Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Walk Article


Ki Tisa-5770

Rabbi David Walk


            This is perhaps the most eclectic Torah reading of the year.  The range of topics is almost mind boggling.  There's a lot of legal material about Shabbat, the census and the Temple incense.  Then there is one of the most difficult narratives in the entire Bible, namely the sin of the Golden Calf.  And we have one of the very few theological passages in our Torah.  In the aftermath of the horrendous and incomprehensible behavior of the Jews in worshiping this idol, God declares that the nation will be forgiven, even though three thousand perpetrators are executed.  At this point Moshe Rabbeinu asks God for more information about the relationship between the Creator and us, the creatures.  Moshe seems to be interested in the apparatus of the Teshuva or repentance process.  It is that part of this philosophic discussion between the Source of all knowledge and the greatest Torah scholar of all time that I would like to look at a bit more deeply this week.

            After God has announced that the people will be spared, Moshe asks:  And now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, pray let me know Your ways, so that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your eyes; and consider that this nation is Your people (Exodus 33:13).  What is Moshe asking?  According to our greatest commentary, Rashi (1040-1105), he is asking two questions.  First, what behavior will insure finding favor with God?  Secondly, Moshe seems to want information on the system of reward and punishment.  However, Moshe is not done asking for theological insights.  In verse 16, he asks how will we know that we have gained favor with God.  God answers that Moshe shouldn't worry, because the world will always know that we have a special relationship with the Creator.  Now comes the central request from our prime prophet and teacher:  Show me, now, Your glory (verse 19)!  I really have no idea what Moshe really wants to know by asking to see God's glory.  But most commentators seem to think that he wants to know how to predict Divine behavior.  In this case the answer is a resounding:  No!!  God says that no living human can possibly know the Deity.  Just before this negative response, God says something a bit enigmatic, and it's that statement which I'd like to look at more closely.

            In verse 19, God declares:  I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor whom I wish to favor, and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion.  While saying no to Moshe's chief question, God is supplying some information.  It's not clear what that information is.  One could suggest that we have the ability to recognize where God has been and to see the results of God's intervention on earth.

Again, it's Rashi who steps into the breach, he explained: "I will let… pass before you": The time has come that you shall see some of My glory, that I will permit you to see, because I want and I need to teach you the order of prayer. Because when you had to beg mercy for Israel, you begged Me to remember the merit of the Patriarchs. You think that if the merit of the Patriarchs is depleted, there is no longer any hope. I will therefore let all the attributes of My goodness pass before you.

There are over 200 super commentaries on Rashi.  The most famous is Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (1455-1525) from Constantinople.  He was intrigued by Rashi's use of the expression that the time had come.  He wrote:  What Rashi means is that even without the request for information about the nature of God it was already time to reveal the order of prayer.  Not so much how to pray as the Talmud seems to explain (Rosh Hashanah 17b, that God was enwrapped in a talit like a chazzan when these verses were pronounced), but what prayer can achieve.  This is teaching Moshe two things.  First, that when God forgave the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf, the merit for that atonement was given in the name of the Patriarchs, but in reality we are capable of earning that pardon on our own.  The sincere petition for forgiveness can work without prior promises.  And secondly, that the statement that God will pass all the Divine glory before Moshe was not an answer to the appeal for greater knowledge of God.  It was instead an explanation of how the system of prayer works.  God was informing Moshe that this awesome sight of Celestial goodness on parade wasn't a once in the history of humankind event, rather it is the potential experience of every petitioner standing in supplication before God, every time one prays.  The Mizrachi explains that this spectacle wasn't God's glory; we don't merit to see that phenomenon while we are still denizens of this world. However, a really good, sincere, devout prayer can produce the extravaganza described here.

We don't read these verses to discover what wonders Moshe experienced while hob nobbing with God on Mount Sinai during those forty day encounters.  We are not privy to those marvels.  The Torah doesn't record that stuff, because it won't be reproduced.  That material is God and Moshe's secret.  We are informed of the things Moshe saw which we are theoretically capable of reproducing in our own spiritual lives. 

I've said many times that the purpose of prayer is not like a game of Go Fish, where you try to get what you wanted.  There's nothing wrong with cataloging our needs, but the real goal of prayer is to feel close to God.  What the Mizrachi is teaching us is that a really good prayer can approach a prophetic experience.  In our rendezvous with God we can encounter our Creator in such a way that we intuit all the greatness of our Deity.  When that gulf between us is bridged by pious prayer we can feel what God showed Moshe: And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and God called out in the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin (34:5-7).  And that's pretty awesome.



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