Note: During the middle four days of Sukkot and Passover (called Chol HaMoed) it is customary to read Exodus 33:12 - 34:26. This week we will be examining a piece of that story.
I recently came across an interesting conundrum, posed by the Ishbitzer Rebbe, about this week’s Torah portion. At issue was what caused Moses’s face to shine when he came down from Mount Sinai after receiving the second set of Ten Commandments from God. As the Torah explains:
So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him. (Exodus 34:29)
On the surface the text is clear. Moses goes up to Sinai, speaks with God, and returns changed, glowing in the after effect of his encounter with the Divine. However, when we read about Moses’ experience with God, we learn it is incomplete. God refuses to show Moses his face. Instead, Moses must settle for seeing God’s back.
And the LORD said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:21:23).
The problem for the Ishbitzer Rebbe was that something did not seem to add up. How could Moses’ lackluster encounter with God result in such a glowing countenance? If Moses really saw God, then he would be changed. But how could God’s back transform Moses in the way it did?
Summarizing the Ishbitzer’s teaching in her book, The Wisdom of Not Knowing, Ellen Frankel explains, “The concealment forces Moses to use his own imagination to perceive what cannot be shown to him directly. In other words, he must reach deep inside himself to see God. From this experience of self-insight, he is illuminated” (176).
While Frankel brings for the teaching to explain “the paradox of reaching illumination by means of darkness and unknowing,” I was touched by this teaching for a different reason. Though Moses had to ask for God to reveal Godself, the Ishbitzer Rebbe’s teaching tells us that Moses already had everything he needed within himself. By God withholding the Divine face from Moses, our forefather had to search it out while trapped in the rock face. And with a deep enough search, Moses was able to encounter the exact form of God that he sought.
How was he able to do this?
There is an incredibly powerful teaching about the way that we connect spiritually before we are even born. The Talmud teaches:
What does an embryo resemble when it is in the bowels of its mother? Folded writing tablets. Its hands rest on its two temples respectively, its two elbows on its two legs and its two heels against its buttocks. Its head lies between its knees, its mouth is closed and its navel is open, and it eats what its mother eats and drinks what its mother drinks, but produces no excrements because otherwise it might kill its mother….A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other… As soon as it sees the light an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah completely (Talmud Bavli, Niddah 30b)
In essence, our tradition believes that each of us are omniscient before birth. Seeing from “one end of the world to the other” is a metaphor for our all-knowingness. Yet, as soon as we are born we are made to forget these eternal truths. We seemingly start over, but with one twist. All acts of learning are, in fact, not new. We go through life relearning what we once fully understood.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe’s teaching forces us to question this metaphor. Perhaps the Angel did not succeed as he would have wished. Perhaps we are not wiped clean when we feel the angel’s finger above our lips. Maybe instead, a piece of omniscience is left behind and if only we are given the space to concentrate enough, dusting our souls for the fingerprints of God’s knowledge, we might find a universe hiding within.
We all have greatness inside us. Divine understanding, compassion, wisdom, and love are woven into the fabric of our DNA. However it is hidden, deep in the recesses of our souls. Our goal is to cultivate the ability to search, to learn to uncover the clandestine sparks of holiness that live within. Revelation doesn’t only come from without. Sometimes the greatest wisdom is lying in wait, ready to be discovered if we only took the space to look.