This week’s Torah portion interrupts the description of the building of the Tabernacle with a narrative section that includes the story of the Golden Calf, and — although perhaps less famously — the most chutzpadik (impertinent) question in the whole Torah. The question comes after Moses has negotiated twice with God on behalf of the Israelites, with success. His next negotiation with God is not on behalf of the Israelites, but—surprisingly—for himself. Out of the blue, it seems, Moses speaks up again: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!

It’s a short exclamation, but it’s a big, big question. Judaism has always thought that God cannot be seen. No human being has ever seen God directly — and that’s not merely a coincidence, but a reality of God’s power and vastness, and human limitations. As is typical with the Torah, most of the details around Moses’ question are left up to our imagination and interpretation. Was he begging God out of curiosity or just giving voice to a wish he knew was impossible to grant? Had he been trying to summon up the courage to ask this question for months or did it slip out of his mouth? Was he literally talking about seeing God, or was “beholding God’s Presence” a metaphor?

Rabbi Beth Kalisch, following the lead of some of the mediaeval rabbis, such as Rashi and Rashbam, suggests that Moses out of “piety, humility, and perhaps shyness and fear, refuses to look at God’s Presence” at the “burning bush”, and that he asked for a second chance for what must have been felt as a missed opportunity in Moses eyes. So many of our relationships are burdened with unasked questions; mistakes we made at the very beginning of a relationship that now seem like history that can’t be rewritten.

You cannot see My face,” God tells Moses. But, God finds a way to say yes to Moses, offering what we might understand to be next best thing.  The past cannot be rewritten and impossible wishes cannot be granted. But, Kalish writes, if we have the courage and the faith in a relationship to ask the questions we’ve been burying for too long, perhaps there is still a “yes” that we might be able to receive, and to fill that holes that are stopping us from going forward.

Shabbat Shalom—Rabbi Adrian M Schell

Torah Reading for Shabbat Ki Tisa
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Reading: Ex 32:1-24 – Plaut p. 578; Hertz p. 356
Haftarah : I Kings 18:1 – 18:39 – Plaut p.607; Hertz p.369