Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 7 March 2015 / 16 Adar I 5775

Parshat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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After the transgression of the golden calf the Torah records a dialogue between Moshe and G-d in which Moshe pleads to come closer to G-d and gain a greater understanding of Him: “He (Moshe) said, ‘Show me your glory.’ He (G-d) said: ‘I shall make all My goodness pass before you and shall call out with the name ‘Hashem’ before you; I shall show favor when I choose to show favor, and I shall show mercy when I choose to show mercy.’ He (G-d) said, ‘You will not be able to see My face for no human can see My face and live…Behold, there is a place near Me; you may stand on the rock. When my glory passes by, I shall place you in a cleft of the rock; I shall shield you with My hand until I have passed. Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen’.” (Shemot 33:18-23)

This is clearly one of the most enigmatic passages in the Torah. Abarbanel cites in detail the explanations of Rambam and several other commentaries, mentions two explanations of his own and finally settles on a third interpretation as the one that fits the language of the Torah best.

In the above verses, G-d is responding to three requests posed to Him by Moshe immediately beforehand: 1) ‘Make Your ways known to me’; 2) ‘If Your presence does not go along, do not bring us up from here’; 3) ‘Show me now Your glory.’ G-d’s ways are accessible to the intellect, while His glory must be shown through prophecy.

To the first request G-d responds, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you.’ This refers to descriptions and characteristics of G-d that are called ‘good’. Next, G-d says, ‘and I shall call out with the name ‘Hashem’ before you’. This is a reference to His characteristic of mercy which He then expresses ‘and I shall show favor when I choose to show favor….’ What He means is that He will show favor and mercy to his people Israel when they deserve it.

In terms of the second request Abarbanel offers a completely different interpretation. Instead of ‘if Your presence does not go along’ Abarbanel interprets the words to mean ‘if Your anger does not go away.’ Moshe is saying that if G-d remains angry at the people he should leave them at Mt. Sinai. In G-d’s response Abarbanel substitutes the word ‘anger’ for ‘face’. He is telling Moshe that his request is impossible since no human can experience G-d’s anger and still remain alive.

To the third request, to be shown G-d’s glory, G-d answers that Moshe should stand on the rock near Him. His reference is to the rock at Horeb, from which Moshe brings forth water. This rock is a physical metaphor for the Divine Presence. G-d is telling Moshe that because of his great desire to see G-d’s glory he will be able to ‘stand on the rock’ and use his power of prophecy to deepen his experience of G-d’s glory. However, G-d tells him that standing indefinitely in the bright, pure light of the Divine Presence will blind him. There is a limitation to prophetic understanding, a boundary that should not be crossed since it can profoundly distort the prophetic understanding. When G-d tells him ‘When My glory passes by’ He is telling him that even if he crosses this boundary G-d will protect him from damage by placing him, metaphorically, in the ‘cleft of the rock.’ G-d then tells him that He will remove his hand and ‘you will see My back’. In Hebrew, the word for ‘back’ is essentially the same as the word for ‘later on’. G-d is telling Moshe that He will remove that protection so that Moshe will still be able to apply his prophetic insights later on to other dimensions of G-d’s creation.

Finally, the word ‘face’ in the last sentence: ‘but My face may not be seen’ is again translated by Abarbanel as ‘anger’. G-d is informing Moshe that He has forgiven the transgressions of Israel and that He will go with them and He will not pour out his wrath against them, i.e. ‘but My anger may not be seen.’

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