וְעַתָּה אִם־נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הֽוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת־דְּרָכֶךָ וְאֵדָעֲךָ
V’atah, im na matzati hein b’einekha, hodi’eni na et d’rakhekha, v’eida’akha …
[Moses said,] “And now, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please let me know your ways, that I may know you … ” (Exodus 33:13).
וַיֹּאמַר הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ
Vayomar “Har’eini na et k’vodekha!”
And [Moses] said, “Please, let me behold Your Presence!” (Exodus 33:18).
How does the Torah describe God? Not by doctrine or dogma, but by encounter. Not with systematic theology, but with stories. I find this approach refreshing. Stories do not demand agreement or adherence; they invite engagement. We hear a story, and we live that story, imagining it, putting ourselves into the scene. “Once upon a time” is, in fact, always “now,” as time collapses and we immerse ourselves in the narrative. Stories also can never be reduced to one meaning; they demand interpretation, and we humans delight in plumbing what a good story might mean.
A theology or a creed attempts to fix a particular conception of the nature of our infinite reality, which in religious shorthand we refer to in English as “God.” This approach, while certainly of value, will always fall short of a full apprehension of reality because the infinite cannot be defined. It is oxymoronic to try to define that which is infinite, that which has no limit. On the other hand, while we cannot define that which is infinite, we can certainly encounter and have a relationship with the infinite reality that we perceive around and within us. When we pause and gaze at a starry sky, we encounter the infinite mystery. When we pause and look into another human face, we encounter that which we can never fully understand. And yet, we yearn to know more deeply, to encounter more intimately.
We can have a relationship with that which is beyond our complete understanding: YHVH, Life Unfolding. The Torah tells us stories about our ancestors’ encounters with that mystery and bequeaths to us not a fixed definition of God, which cannot be contained in any final description, but a call to encounter God. This takes courage. The Infinite not only fascinates, draws us and compels us. It’s also terrifying! At Mount Sinai, after the revelation, the people trembled and fell back from the mountain.
You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will listen, but let not God speak with us any further, lest we die!” Moses said, “Be not afraid!” … But the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Exodus 21:15–18).
Moses is our hero, the one who somehow is willing and able to walk into that thick cloud of unknowing and encounter the Infinite:
וְדִבֶּר יְהֹוָה אֶל־משֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים כַּֽאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵהוּ
V’diber YHVH el Moshe panim el panim, ka’asher y’dabeir ish el rei’eihu — “YHVH would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another” (Exodus 33:11).
Moses is fearless, engaging the Great Mystery in impassioned discourse, arguing for the life of his people despite their terrors and smallness and cowardice, and despite their unwillingness to engage in the relationship that YHVH desires to have with them, to have with each of us.
As I read the Torah, along with countless commentators before me, I come to this conclusion: God, the Infinite Mystery of our being, desires us (to use human terminology, which is all that we’ve got) and longs to know us face to face. In this week’s portion, the Children of Israel reject that relationship in favor of the Golden Calf. Most of the time we are like the Children of Israel; on occasion, we stumble out of our daily preoccupations and catch a glimpse of the awesome and endless wonder that surrounds us. We might sense a call from the universe — a conviction that despite our smallness, our lives matter, and that we have a place to fill and a task to perform. But awe can quickly turn to discomfort or embarrassment, even fear, as when we gaze into someone’s eyes for too many beats. We retreat from the encounter, unable to sustain our gaze. Instead, we make our own Golden Calves and bow before them. We shrink our world into manageable forms (our tradition calls them “false gods”) and refuse to listen to the whisper that calls to our souls. Moses is our prophet because he does not shrink away. Moses’ longing to know God is so unquenchable that he ascends the mountain once again. YHVH then reveals as much of the Divine character as any human being can apprehend:
And [Moses] said, “Please, let me behold Your Presence!” And [YHVH] answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will display My Essence, and reveal all the grace and compassion that make up My Essence (Exodus 33:18–19).
When Moses descends from the mountain soon thereafter, carrying with him the second set of tablets, symbolic of the restored relationship with YHVH, he is transformed. His face is radiant. Light pours from his countenance, so much so that the Children of Israel initially shrink from him as they had shrunk away from the holy mountain. But then they draw near so that Moses can teach them.
Moses is our hero and our teacher because of his faith, which literally means trust. He trusts enough to walk through the terror of encountering the Infinite. He trusts enough to walk directly into the thick cloud of unknowing, the place where our intense desire to define and control reality is nullified. He trusts enough to become intimate with that great Mystery before which we are, strangely, simultaneously, infinitesimally insignificant and also of singular importance. Moses is not able to define God — no one is — but Moses encounters God, and then brings back to us the fruits of that living relationship.