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Parashat Shemot 5773 — 01/02/2013

Parashat Shemot 5773 — 01/02/2013

Close to You

Moshe said, let me turn aside and see this great vision – why is the thornbush not burning up?  Hashem saw that he turned aside to see; He called to him from within the thronbush and said “Moshe, Moshe” and he said “Here I am.”  He said, don’t get any closer; take your shoes off your feet because the place you’re standing on is holy ground. … Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to gaze at Elokim.  (3:3-6)

“You will not be able to see My Face, for no human can see My Face and live” (33:20).  It was taught in the name of R. Yeshoshua ben Korchah: Thus did the Holy One, Blessed be He to Moshe: “When I wanted [to reveal Myself to you] you didn’t want to.  Now that you want to, I don’t want to.”  But this is at odds with R. Shmuel bar Nachmani’s statement in the name of R. Yonatan, for R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: As a reward for three things [Moshe] merited three things.  As a reward for hiding his face (3:6) he merited that his face glowed (34:29).  As a reward for “he was afraid” he merited “they were afraid to approach him” (34:30).  As a reward for “to gaze” he merited “and he saw the image of Hashem” (Num 12:8)  (Berachot 7a)

Just like me, they long to be, Close to You (Carpenters)

We begin Sefer Shemot, which will recount the elevation of the nation of Israel from a slave rabble to a people unified in the service of Gd, with a Divinely granted constitution.  The mission of the Jewish people was to be, first and foremost, to come close to Gd, and from that vantage point, to lead the other peoples of the world to the same, or to a similar degree of closeness.   Therefore, practically at the beginning of the Book, we are introduced to the issue of closeness with Gd.

Now the quoted passage is enigmatic enough in itself; its elucidation in the Talmud makes it even more so!  Was Moshe Rabbeinu supposed to look or not?  It appears that Gd first calls to Moshe (doubling his name, which, according to Rashi, is an expression connoting both love and urgency), but then warns Moshe against presuming too much on their relationship, telling him to keep some distance and to remove his shoes (the burning bush was a thorn bush by the way!) so as not to desecrate (?) the holiness of the place.

Now these instructions were given by Hashem (the 4-letter name that is not spoken aloud), that is, the aspect of Gd associated with Gd’s attribute of Mercy.  Given these instructions, Moshe hides his face for fear of gazing at Elokim, which is a different aspect of Gd, namely the attribute of Strict Justice (and which is associated with nature and its laws).  Is the text implying that Moshe was afraid to gaze on Gd in His capacity of the Judge of the world, but had Moshe been able to recognize Gd in his attribute of Hashem he would have looked?  Or perhaps it is implying that Moshe was afraid to look even at Elokim, how much more so would he have been afraid to look at the holier aspect of Hashem!?  I don’t know the answer to this, and it appears from the passage I quoted that the Talmud is somewhat of two minds about it as well.  It appears that R. Yehoshua ben Korchah takes the position that Moshe should have been more forward – carpe diem – or in the words of the Prophet: Seek Gd when He may be found (Is 55:6).  Perhaps R. Yehoshua ben Korchah felt that opportunities to come close to Gd are few and far between, and the opportunity must be seized or lost.  R. Yonatan, on the other hand, appears to take the position that Moshe’s modesty during this first encounter was praiseworthy, and actually led to greater closeness to Gd later on.

This same question comes up on several occasions in Torah.  When the Israelites are standing at Mt. Sinai they hear the 10 Commandments directly from Gd.  The experience is so overwhelming that according to the Midrash their souls left their bodies and they had to be revived by a legion of angels.  They then petition Moshe to mediate the interaction with Gd (20:16) and Gd approves their conduct (Devarim 3:25-6).  It comes up again when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is dedicated.  Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, approach Gd in an improper manner and are killed in the encounter.  A final example: after the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the leaders of the nation “… had a vision of the Divine, and they ate and they drank.”  (24:11)  Here again, the tradition is divided as to whether the gazing, accompanied by eating and drinking, was appropriate or not.  Targum Onkelos approves, treating their eating and drinking as being rejoicing in their offerings.  Rashi, taking the eating and drinking literally, treats the incident as a case of lèse-majesté, with, according to the Midrash, delayed punishment (so as not to spoil the moment).

Now eating and drinking are quintessential physical actions, taken to maintain the physical body.  In both Onkelos and Rashi, they are assumed to be incompatible with vision of the Divine (Onkelos etherealizes them and Rashi condemns them as inappropriate when having a spiritual experience).  Indeed, when Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai to receive Torah from Gd, he neither eats nor drinks anything for 40 days!  Clearly, in some way Moshe must have transcended his physical body and received his nourishment from a much more sublime source, something more compatible with his perception of and closeness to Gd.  Yet even at this level, there appears to be a point beyond which Moshe Rabbeinu, and by extension, no human being, can go, as Gd tells Moshe “… no human being can see My Face and live” (33:20).

At the end of the matter, when all has been heard” (Kohelet 12:13) we are finite, limited creatures.  To paraphrase Chevy Chase: “He’s Gd, and you’re not!”  Our souls are, according to our Rabbis, an actual part of Gd, infinite and immortal, and as such it actually is as close to Gd as anything can be.  But for the time that the soul is bound to a human body, its infinite nature is as it were shrouded by its material shell.  Perhaps this is what Gd was hinting to Moshe when He told him to remove his shoes.  The shoes were leather – skin – and formed a barrier between himself and the holiness of the place.  In the same way, it seems, our “garments of skin” form a barrier between our souls and their source in Gd.  The more we can transcend our material natures, the more closeness we can experience.  In fact, according to Ramban, this is the whole purpose of Torah and its mitzvot – to purify our bodies and souls, with the result that we can enjoy the maximum closeness with Gd, even in this world, and certainly after our souls are no longer encumbered with a body.  If we but follow our tradition we can fulfill ourselves as individuals and bring closer the redemption of the world.