Where God Has Just Been

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By Rabbi Kelilah Miller

Parshat Ki Tisa

As someone who has been a shul-goer since childhood and a Torah-reader since I became a bat mitzvah, I have had the opportunity to hear and chant many sections of Torah that move me.

I take special joy in reading Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea) and the Ten Commandments. I lose myself in the narratives of Genesis.

But the one piece of Torah that consistently gives me a sense of awe to the point of raising goosebumps on my arms as I read is the moment in the week’s parshah — Ki Tisa in which Moshe is allowed to glimpse the “aftereffect” of God.

Having just come through the ordeal of seeing his own brother enable idolatry, and having just barely convinced God not to destroy the entire people of Israel with a single thought, Moshe pleads with God to show him the Divine Self as an assurance that God is with him and with the people. Moshe needs to know that God is with him, in a way that goes beyond mere words.

I can relate to this desire. We are standing in a moment of great uncertainty in our nation and in our world, as we are on the cusp of choosing the next era of our political future. We are trying to assess the level of risk our families and communities from COVID-19 and trying to chart a responsible course of action in the face of many unknowns.

Beyond that, many of us face private uncertainties as we grapple with illnesses, family challenges, opportunities, decisions and the constant flow of change that life always brings. I, like Moshe, want concrete and convincing proof that God is here walking with me. I want to know, and to believe, that all will be well.

When Moshe asks to be reassured by a direct vision of God’s presence, God says no. God reminds Moshe of the basic truth — no human being can see the face of God and live. I adore the frank realism of this moment.

As I inhabit Moshe’s desire to have total and irrefutable reassurance, I also hear that “no,” and I am reminded that my job as a human being is to live within the world that I am given, and to navigate this journey with the powerful but limited tools that I have. While the child within me reaches up for the solidity of an adult’s hand, I come back to the reality that I must find my own balance.

But what is most profound about this passage is that, while God does not allow Moshe to see the Divine Face, Moshe is granted a different privilege. Moshe is allowed a glimpse of the “back” of God, or perhaps the “aftereffect” of God. It is not entirely clear what the Hebrew here intends, but what we do know is that there are words that accompany the vision:

YHVH, YHVH, God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth … ” Again, it is unclear from the Hebrew whether this exclamation comes for God or from Moshe, but the insight of these words seems clear enough: When we experience (or enact) compassion, mercy, patience, kindness and honesty, we are walking in the “comet-tail” of the Divine Presence.

As I contemplate what this means to me today, in the week of Ki Tisa 5780, I am led to the conclusion that, if I need a hand to hold, if I need reassurance of the presence of God, perhaps the hand I need to reach out for is the warm, solid, imperfect, waiting hand of the person standing next to me.

Rabbi Kelilah Miller is cantor and education director at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

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