This Saturday falls in the middle of the observance of Sukkot, so has a special parsha. We read from the book of Exodus from the end of chapter 33 into the beginning of 34. This is shortly after the incident with the golden calf.
Moses is speaking with God. Among the requests he makes is to behold God’s presence.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִ֨י אַעֲבִ֤יר כׇּל־טוּבִי֙ עַל־פָּנֶ֔יךָ וְקָרָ֧אתִֽי בְשֵׁ֛ם ה’
And God answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD.” (Exodus 33:19)
God then tells Moses he will have him go into a cleft in the rock, where God will shield Moses until God has passed by. God adds:
וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ
Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:23)
A few verses later after God has done this, what Moses declares may sound quite familiar:
ה’ ׀ ה’ אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃ נֹצֵ֥ר* חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה:
The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)
This is a prayer that we just heard during the High Holidays! But how did Moses understand this from God briefly passing by?
The answer may lie in just what God has said. Consider the phrases:
“I will make all My goodness pass by you”
“You will see My back; but My face must not be seen”
What do these tell us? God isn’t a corporeal being like us. There’s no here or there for God to pass between. Rather, God’s “goodness” or effects may be seen. Some say that God’s “back” is, in fact, the results of God’s presence – the after effects of God having somehow drawn near. These ripples and echoes may then be seen.
When God has passed by, Moses is able to discern what we call the “thirteen attributes of God” from what is left behind in God’s wake, so to speak. What can this teach us?
Here is what I learn from this passage: something or someone does not need to be directly observed to be understood, at least in part, for the truly astute observer. While you cannot understand the whole from what is left behind, you may still learn a great deal through careful inspection.
Thinking back on the very early days of creation, we read:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ
And God said, “Let us make people in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)
This almost certainly doesn’t mean physical similarities, but perhaps more behavioral attributes. Could it be referring to our ability to have a similar effect on the world as God does in this week’s parsha?
For certain, each one of us may be understood from the ripples and effects we have on the world around us. Do we improve the world in our passing by it? Are we instead content to track muddy footprints all over and leave one mess after another? (Did you know I have kids, by the way?) In the long run, the mark we leave says much about us.
As we move through life, we must remain aware of the impacts we have and how the world changes for having us in it. Long after we are gone, the evidence of the kind of people we were will still be discernible in the echoes left behind. We, like God, would do well to be “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness …, [and] forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” Then, when the keen eyes of future generations look to understand us, they will say that the world was a better place for having us in it.