Sunday, March 4, 2012

God's Back (Portion Ki Tisa)

As any historian knows, oftentimes we can only understand the significance of critical events with the perspective lent by hindsight. Only after such events have receded into the past can we begin to see them clearly. As they are happening—and in their immediate aftermath—they loom too large for us to hold them in our line of vision.

Perhaps, suggests this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we experience God in much the same way.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses wonders if God has abandoned the Israelites. In his time of doubt and despair, dearly longing for reassurance and renewed faith, Moses asks to see God’s face. God replies: “See, there is a place by Me. Station yourself on the rock and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft in 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.”

What on earth does this mean? Since we Jews do not believe that God has a body—and thus, on a literal level, She has neither a face nor a back—Torah must be speaking metaphorically. Drawing on a teaching of the nineteenth century teacher, Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “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.”

During difficult times in my own life, one of my spiritual guides, Rabbi Amy Eilberg would commonly advise me to ponder: “What is God asking of me?” Very often, even after a great deal of consideration, I would honestly respond, “I have no idea.”

Then—weeks or months or even years later—I might stumble unexpectedly upon an answer. Like Jacob, I would realize that God was, in fact, there, asking something significant of me, all along—only I did not know it. I could not see it until well after the fact. God’s face was off beyond my capacity to see, but I was sometimes lucky enough to get a passing glimpse, as it were, of God’s back.

I hasten to add: I do not believe that everything happens for a reason, or that God determines all that occurs in our lives. My God is not All-Powerful; my world contains significant elements of chaos and randomness, some of which turn out for the better and some for the worse. I know that life is not fair. I would never suggest that anyone’s suffering—including my own—is, with proper perspective, a life lesson sent by God. Indeed, I find this view appalling.

But I do believe that sometimes blessings and genuine life lessons can only emerge with time and perspective, and that God is best seen with the benefit of hindsight. We cannot become adults until we learn to delay gratification, in matters spiritual as well as material. If we demand to see God’s face, here and now, we set ourselves up for disillusionment and deep disappointment. But if we train ourselves to wait, with open hearts and minds, then we, like Moses, may catch passing glimpses of divinity from our patient, rocky perches.

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