Two dramas in this week’s parsha interrupt the otherwise rather rote and redundant final chapters of Exodus that focus on the details of the plans for and construction on the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in which God could abide among the Israelites during their desert journey to the Promised Land.
The first and perhaps more familiar is the narrative of the Molten (Golden) Calf, fashioned by Aaron during his brother Moses’ extended absence from the Israelite camp during his ascent to Mount Sinai. The second, equally dramatic if less cinematic, is the successive chapters in which Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel and secures God’s forgiveness of the people.
It is this second drama that yields the biblical phrase known as “the 13 attributes” that enters Jewish liturgy on the festivals and most emphatically on the Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days): “The Lord, the Lord — a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the 1,000th generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin….”
The narrative context in which these words are set imagines Moses cowering in a cleft while, in the audacious imagination of the biblical writers, God’s own self passes by in response to a plea from Moses to “see” God. The text suggests that Moses is only granted the visibility to “see” the “back of God.”
Classical commentators, especially the medieval Jewish exegetes for whom the intangible and invisible presence of God was a philosophical given, were at pains to interpret this passage metaphorically. For them, the idea that God could have a body or be a corporeal, visible, tangible presence would have been akin to idolatry. Thus Moses is said to have had, for example, a prophetic vision. Or, from a different perspective, we can infer a teaching that “we only know when God has been present after the fact.” This concept is what the Bible imagines Joseph saying to his brothers in Egypt — you meant this violence against me for harm but God meant it for the good, as you can see from the way things turned out.
In later Jewish tradition, “seeing God” — as if God were something or someone that could be seen — eventually emerged as subordinate to “experiencing the presence of God” or “being in the presence of God.” Such ideas surface today in much of the discussion about Jewish spirituality.
Experiencing the presence of God requires us to be open to experiences that come upon us unexpectedly, asks of us the practice of humility in accepting the limits of where our minds can take us, and calls on us to discern how we are being acted upon while we more often prefer to control how we are acting.
The presence of God can be found when what we had taken to be certain unexpectedly opens up, and we find ourselves moving in new directions, without being precisely certain why and how — and why now.
The presence of God can be found in those moments when, after a period of disturbance or disruption, we find ourselves re-integrated and refocused and cannot fully account for it by analyzing our own efforts.
The presence of God can be found when we realize we were not as in control as we thought we were, and that yields a sense of possibility and of trust, rather than of anxiety and unease.
The presence of God can be found in the unfolding of something that begins as one thing, but surprises and challenges us as it develops into something else.
The presence of God can be found when, not entirely through our own efforts, we find we can endure living with pain, loneliness, and turmoil amid life’s darkness without allowing them to define or diminish us — because we do not feel isolated and alone.
The presence of God can be found when we are willing to dance around the edges of certainty and acknowledge the sublime and subtle mysteries of creation and redemption, of life and death, of time and of space, of presence and absence, of boundaries and of infinite connections.
Such moments, like that experienced by Moses in the cleft of the rock, are transient, isolated, unusual, and infrequent. But then so are most moments of deepest insight, internal transformation, spiritual awareness, intimate ecstasy, and perceptual illumination that leave us rearranged, repositioned, and renewed. Those are the moments on which we bet our lives. Those are the moments that change our lives. Those are the moments when we become aware of the presence of God.