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Parashat Ki Tisa 5775 — 03/04/2015

Parashat Ki Tisa 5775 — 03/04/2015

…and you will see My back, but My Face will not be seen. (33:23)

You cannot see My Face, for a man cannot see Me and live. (33:20)

…and you will have a vision of what follows from My existence.  Me essence itself, however, will not be seen (33:23)

You cannot have a vision of My Presence.  A man cannot have a vision of Me and still exist. (33:20)  [Second translation from The Living Torah, R. Aryeh Kaplan]

As is immediately obvious from the very different renderings of the same Hebrew original, this passage is very difficult to understand.  Rav Kook asks some very basic questions about the passage: What do the allegorical terms “back” and “face” mean?  And what does the Talmud mean when it says that Gd “showed Moshe the knot of His head-tefillin“?  Gd wears tefillin?

Rav Kook approaches these issues from the point of view of knowledge.  He points out that there are two kinds of knowledge:

There are two levels of knowledge.  The first is an accurate knowledge of an object’s true nature.  The second is a limited knowledge, restricted by our intellectual or physical limitations.  Regarding tangible objects, there may not be a significant difference bewteen the two levels of knowledge.  But when dealing with abstract concepts, especially with regard to the nature of Gd, the difference will be great – perhaps infinitely so.  (Sapphire from the Land of Israel)

As I understand Rav Kook’s exposition, the first level of knowledge is deeper and more complete, a knowledge of the inner essence of the object of knowledge – its state of being.  The second level is more superficial, having more to do with the way the object interacts with its surroundings – its state of action.  Thus, in the case of Gd, it is impossible for us, as created beings, to appreciate Gd’s Being, but we can appreciate His activity, in our lives and in the creation as a whole.  Gd’s different Names are the different modalities by which He interacts with Creation, such as His attribute of Mercy, or of Strict Justice.

The Torah, too, according to Rav Kook, is on this second level: The Torah is based on the second type of knowledge.  It presents us with a perception of Gd according to our limited grasp, since only this type of knowledge can provide ethical guidance.  Ethics is the guide to appropriate activity, hence it is on the second level.  Thus, in the coda to the Amidah, Elokai n’tzor, we say, Aseh l’ma’an kedushatecha, aseh l’ma’an Toratecha / Do if for the sake of your holiness, do it for the sake of your Torah.  Gd’s holiness is His state of Being, utterly transcendental.  Gd’s Torah, on the other hand is that holiness, or Being, put into action as the Creator and His Creation.

Rav Kook goes on to explain that these two levels of knowledge correspond to Gd’s “Face” and “Back” respectively.  The Hebrew word for face is panim (“such a little punim on that boy…” – you had an aunt who said that!!) which is related to the word p’nim or “inside.”  Knowing Gd’s Face means cognizing His internal essence, which is impossible for any creature.  For how can a subset of anything know the whole set.  In current vernacular, how can we get our heads around Gd, if Gd is so much bigger than our heads?  Thus, a man cannot see Me and live.  As long as we are creatures, we cannot grasp the essence of our Creator.

However we can, apparently, see Gd’s “back” and live.  Rav Kook explains that this is where the imagery of the knot of the head-tefillin comes in.  The tefillin contain four paragraphs that invoke the absolute Unity of Gd, that is, the incomprehensible knowledge of Gd’s Face.  The purpose of the knot is to bind the tefillin to the head, and to the intellect.  For since Gd’s “back” relates to His activity in Creation, it is subject, at least to some extent, to intellectual investigation.  Indeed, I believe that this is what Torah study is really about – it is an intellectual path to connect with Gd.  What is often derisively termed “Talmudic hair-splitting” may in fact be an exercise for the intellect to make finer and finer distinctions, until one reaches a level that transcends distinctions altogether, the level that is beyond all boundaries.

I always dread coming to Parashat Ki Tisa, as it contains the terrible sin of the golden calf, which the Sages tell us we are still paying for, and probably will be until Mashiach comes, may it be speedily in our times.  But in fact, perhaps if it were not for that sin, Moshe Rabbeinu wouldn’t have had to resort to the same intensity of prayer and closeness to Gd in order to gain forgiveness for the people.  In that case, not only wouldn’t he have experienced Gd’s Face, he might not even have gained such a great level of comprehension of Gd’s Back either.  And that would have been the ultimate loss for him, for us as a people, and for the world.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 21: One Little Goat

In his final essay, R. Sacks goes to the end of the Haggadah, to the song Chad gadyo, One Little Goat.  The song is actually quite violent in its own way, each successive animal or person or celestial being destroying the one that came before.  Yet it concludes with Gd’s destroying the Angel of Death and bringing peace, wholeness and perfection to the world.  Thus, the message is ultimately one of hope, the prophetic vision of lions and lambs lying down together, of each man sitting under his vine and under his fig tree with nobody oppressing anybody else.  We leave the Seder knowing that, even though there are many more exiles and redemptions to come, ultimately Gd will reward our steadfastness and our efforts in His service with a happiness that we can only begin to imagine.

A joyous and kosher Pesach to all!