Torah Portion of the Week: To Know God

Parashat Ki Tissa depicts the high point of a life that is in itself a human high point: the moment Moses, the greatest prophet who ever lived, asks for the opportunity to know God.

Ariel Seri Levi
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'Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law,' by Gustav Doré (from 'Doré's English Bible,' 1866).
'Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law,' by Gustav Doré (from 'Doré's English Bible,' 1866).Credit: Getty Images
Ariel Seri Levi

Many people believe in God, but few know him. In the fifth chapter of his introduction to the talmudic Tractate Avot, Maimonides writes that knowledge of God is the worthiest goal of human existence: “You must set for yourself a goal: To reach God, may his greatness grow and may he be sanctified, to the best of your human capabilities; in other words, to know him.”

According to both the medieval philosopher and to biblical tradition, Moses is a mortal who achieved this goal: He attained the level of knowing God at the highest possible human level. Parashat Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) depicts the high point of a life that is in itself a human high point: the moment Moses, the greatest prophet who ever lived, asks for the opportunity to know God.

The background to this moment is a dramatic message that God conveys to Moses, which provokes a debate between them. Yochanan Muffs, an American scholar who has skillfully described God’s personality as portrayed in the Bible, explains that the dispute is over the issue of who will lead Israel into the Promised Land: God instructs Moses to inform the nation that it will be led solely by an angel, but Moses refuses, demanding that God himself lead Israel.

“Ye are a stiff-necked people,” God says, explaining his position, “If I go up into the midst of thee for one moment, I shall consume thee” (Exodus 33:5). God is very familiar with Israel’s character and with his own. The combination of the nation’s stubbornness and ingratitude with the destructive wrath of the Almighty could lead to Israel’s annihilation. Better for both sides that Israel should be led not by him, but by an angel, a heavenly messenger that is a partial embodiment of the deity.

In response, Moses shifts the debate from the national level to that of interpersonal relations, and says to God: “... thou sayest unto me: Bring up this people; and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said: I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight” (Exod. 33:12). Moses sees the dispatch of an angel to lead Israel through the desert to Canaan as a personal affront. God sent Moses to lead Israel into the Promised Land; he never mentioned an escort by an angel. Although Israel may be stubborn, Moses has found favor in God’s eyes. The appointment of an angel is incongruent with declarations by God concerning his special relationship with Moses.

God accedes to Moses’ request, announcing, “My presence [or, face] shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest” (Exod. 33:14). A face embodies the actual presence of a human being – and, in this case, of God – in a personal manner, and without mediation. God tells Moses that he will personally escort him and the nation, and Moses confirms: “If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence” (Exod. 33:15). That is, “If you do not escort us, we shall not go to Canaan altogether.”

Moses utilizes his personal relationship with God to elevate Israel’s status – and obtains his goal. After achieving his objective at the national level, however, he then seeks to intensify his personal closeness to God, by means of two requests: “Now therefore, I pray thee … show me now thy ways” (Exod. 33:13) and “Show me, I pray thee, thy glory” (Exod. 33:18).

While acceding to the first request, God rejects the second one – or, at least, only partially accedes to it. The request to see God’s glory is apparently a polite way of asking to see the Almighty himself. Such a request cannot be fully granted: “Thou canst not see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:20).

Maimonides, who considers God to be an abstract entity with no physical presence, interprets Moses’ request as a desire to fully understand the divine essence. According to the philosopher, God’s response, “for man shall not see me and live,” means that mortals, living beings whose consciousness is contained in a physical body, cannot fully comprehend God, who is not a physical entity at all.

A literal reading of the biblical text, however, reveals that Moses wants to see God himself, and that the comment, “for man shall not see me and live,” does not mean that mortals are incapable of seeing God, but rather that to see him is to put oneself in existential danger. Thus, Moses is not permitted to see God; he will be allowed to see only his back. God himself will cover Moses’ eyes, and only after the Almighty has passed before him will Moses be allowed to view him: “... and [I] will cover thee with my hand until I have passed by. And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exod. 33:22.23).

In accordance with his interpretive approach, Maimonides explains that this manner of viewing God constitutes but a partial understanding of him. When we see a friend whose back is turned to us, we might confuse that friend with someone else. This is not an intimate way of knowing someone, where the vision of a person’s face is engraved in our minds.

Although Moses attains knowledge of God on a high level, he cannot comprehend God’s entire essence. While he is not allowed to look directly at God’s face, God’s revelation does fulfill Moses’ second request – to know his ways. God discloses to Moses that he is “a merciful and gracious God, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and faithfulness; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).

While we cannot precisely define God, we can describe his behavior and his relationship with human beings. According to Maimonides, knowledge of God’s ways can be obtained through a close study of nature, which reflects God’s infinite wisdom. That description of the divine ways, referred to by the sages as the “Thirteen Qualities” (midot), appears in different variations in many places in the Bible, and to this day is included in Jewish liturgy.

Whereas seeing of God remains Moses’ unique, personal experience, the description of divine qualities takes the form of a text that can be passed on to others. For those who have not been privileged to see God – neither his face nor his back – the study of this week’s Torah reading is one way of attaining knowledge of God, which, according to Maimonides, is the goal of human existence but something that even Moses is unable to fully attain.

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