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24.02.2016 11:47    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  exodus  ki tisa  

"Knowing the Lord and Human Capabilities"


After the Lord complied with Moses' request and forgave Israel for the sin of the golden calf - the central theme of this week's reading - Moses had to take action to renew the process of the people receiving the Torah.  Weighed down by a sense of failure, Moses returned to the mountain and requested four things of the Lord.  Three of these requests are discussed by the Sages in the gemara (Berachot 7a):

Rabbi Yochanan further said in the name of Rabbi Yossi:  Three things did Moses ask of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and they were granted to him.  He asked that the Divine Presence should rest upon Israel, and it was granted to him.  For it is said:  "[For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor] unless You go with us" (Ex. 33:16)…He asked that the Divine Presence should not rest upon the idolaters, and it was granted to him.  For it is said:  "so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I" (Ex. 33:16).  He asked that He should show him the ways of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and it was granted to him.  For it is said:  "Pray let me know Your ways" (Ex. 33:13).

His fourth request, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence" (Ex. 33:18), was rejected, "for man may not see Me and live" (Ex. 33:20).[1] Of his two requests for the people, both were answered, but of his personal requests only one was granted:  "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show" (Ex. 33:19).  The Sages and many biblical exegetes have discussed the difference between the two personal requests.  Rabbenu Bahya wrote (loc. cit.):

One of them was possible, namely, "Pray let me know Your ways," and the second was impossible, namely, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence"…Regarding these two, Solomon in his great wisdom said:  "It is the glory of G-d to conceal a matter, and the glory of a king to plumb a matter" (Prov. 25:2).

In their aspiration to "see" the Presence of the Lord, human beings are limited both intellectually and practically; this is not an attainable aspiration.  It even endangers human life, as we see in the gemara's description of the result of four tannaim entering the "Garden" [pardes]:  one was killed on the spot, another went mad, the third became an apostate, and only Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed due to the restriction which he imposed upon himself from the outset, refraining from crossing the boundary set for man.  In contrast, the aspiration to know the ways of the Lord is both feasible and commendable, and is one of the highest expressions of religious faith attainable by the believer, as Maimonides states (Guide for the Perplexed 1.54):

We learn from the words, "Show me Your way, that I may know You," that G-d is known by His attributes, for Moses believed that he knew Him, when he was shown the way of G-d.   The words, "that I may find grace in your sight," imply that he who knows G-d finds grace in His eyes.  Not only is he acceptable and welcome to G-d who fasts and prays, but everyone who knows Him.

Rabbenu Bahya explains further on:

"…the glory of a king to plumb a matter," meaning that trying to fathom His Majesty in respect of His actions.  Thus said the prophet of Blessed memory, "But only in this should one glory:  in his earnest devotion to Me.  For I the Lord act with kindness, justice and equity in the world" (Jer. 9:23).

Moses sought to know the ways whereby the Holy One, Blessed be He, runs the world, so that this knowledge would help him lead the people and understand the Lord's reactions in the future, as Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets:  "First I must acquire further knowledge…how You have always but one objective before You—with all the multiplicity of facets of Your various ways…how You change the way You deal with this people, yet You have never abrogated Your original intention regarding them."

The Lord's words—human impressions and Divine intentions

The Lord's reaction to the golden calf, as described in the dialogue between G-d and Moses on Mount Sinai, leaves no doubt as to the gravity of the act and its consequences regarding the bond between the Lord and Israel.  Any human being would understand that the Israelites' chosen status had potentially come to an end. However, Moses reacted to the Lord's words not as one would expect a human being to respond, although at this time he had not yet learned the correct way of winning the Lord's favor.  We receive a glance of his human reaction only when he sees the boisterous gathering of the people around the golden calf.  Then we sense the trauma of a deeply disappointed person who must neutralize his negative feelings in order to continue acting on behalf of the people.[2]

Moses' brief attempt at appeasing the Lord leads him to seek an understanding of how he should act in the future so that the human impression of the Lord's wrath not lead to a conclusion that endangers the objective—receiving the Torah and living by its laws in the promised land.  According to Maimonides, knowing the ways of the Lord is, first and foremost, to know how to neutralize human conceptions from the impression one might receive from the Lord's reaction.  The objective is to understand in human terms what the Lord's reaction does not include.  This is not easy for a human being to discern, since all our expertise in analyzing responses of wrath relates to other human beings.  The difficulty also stems from the frailty of human capabilities when it comes to retaining optimism and hope on the way to attaining the objective.

Moses sought to follow dictates derived from idea in its pure form, so that emotions and failings would not divert him from pursuing it.  The answer that he received, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and compassion that I show" (Ex. 33:19), revealed to him the Lord's ways in creating the world, as Maimonides explains:

It is therefore clear that the ways which Moses wished to know, and which G-d taught him, are the actions emanating from G-d.  Our Sages call them middot (qualities), and speak of the thirteen middot of G-d.  They used the term also in reference to man; compare: "there are four different middot (characters) among those who go to the house of learning"; "there are four different middot (characters) among those who give charity."  They do not mean to say that G-d really possesses middot (qualities), but that He performs actions similar to such of our actions as originate in certain qualities.

To understand the depth of Maimonides' words, let us look at Rabbenu Bahya's commentary on Maimonides:

Regarding these middot that are attributed to G-d, it is not that He has such dispositions, as a person might have compassion on another or a father have compassion towards his son, for that cannot come except after a person has experienced the emotion of compassion; but this effect of the quality of compassion can come from Him without His experiencing emotion or change.  Thus we call Him "compassionate and gracious," for when a person gives to someone who does not wield the authority of law over him, that person is called gracious…and likewise with all middot, all of them qualities of compassion.  This is the gist of what Maimonides says at length.

The Lord's actions and man's qualities

To understand the Lord's ways is to know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not follow the dictates of middot as they are perceived in the general human sense.  For example, a person might make a decision motivated by considerations of compassion because he cannot stand up to the importuning of another who is appealing to him or because his character dictates such a decision, even though the person importuning him is not deserving of compassion, insofar as "the compassion of the wicked is cruelty" (Prov. 12:10).  The exhortation to imitate G-d, as Abba Saul said:  "Be like Him; just as He is compassionate and gracious, so too, you should be compassionate and gracious" (Minor Tractates, Soferim 3.17), prescribes that we act in a manner reflecting our devotion to these fine qualities but without extraneous considerations.  In the final analysis, knowing the ways of the Lord leads to the maintaining of a proper society.  We are to be earnestly devoted to knowing the Lord, "For I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world" (Jer. 9:23), rendering true justice without bias and equity and without considerations of weakness or pity.

Maimonides teaches us that one can understand the ways of the Lord by examining the natural world that He created and by comprehending the relevance of the Torah's commands.  Some processes in nature may appear cruel or unfair, but a deeper understanding of the processes from a broader view will lead the wise person to appreciate the great wisdom of the Divine and thus to understand His ways.  In this manner the ways in which we are created in the image of G-d become evident, and we approach the aspiration of the Sages: imitatio Dei.

The Patriarchs as a model

The distinction made in the Torah between the Patriarchs' knowledge of the Lord's ways and the knowledge that was required of the generation that left Egypt reveals the grandeur of the Patriarchs' personalities. These were men who acted as one would expect of a believer who knows the ways of the Lord:  Utterly ignoring his own human desires, Abraham obeyed the Lord's commands, from abandoning his homeland to abandoning his future when he was commanded to offer up his son.  Abraham also showed no lust for power or sovereignty, and simply returned to his tent after having defeated the alliance of kings that had been terrorizing the entire area.  He also accepted with noble dignity Ephron's highly unfair proposal when he sought to bury his wife Sara, even though he was considered by those around him to be a "man of G-d" and great military hero.

Although Isaac was sent off by Avimelech for no apparent reason, he did not hesitate to forgive Avimelech when the latter decided to become closer to him later on.  Jacob was exploited by Laban for twenty years, and even though he knew what a cheat Laban was, he nevertheless concluded a peace treaty with him.  The actions of our patriarchs were not directed by the human drive for revenge or by bearing a grudge.[3] They either ignored such feelings or overcame them out of nobility and magnanimity.  Never had they the slightest thoughts of reproach regarding the moves taken by the Holy One, Blessed be He, even though they may have appeared contradictory to His promises to them.  Therefore the Sages called Genesis "the Book of the Righteous," after the righteous figures in it, who did what is right and good—relative good in the eyes of man, and absolute right in the eyes of G-d.

Did Moses achieve his objective?  One could say that he attained a level of understanding and knowing the Lord beyond that achieved by any other human being.  Humility, first and foremost, was the human trait that enabled him to reach such accomplishments, a characteristic that enables one to learn infinitely much, as opposed to pride which prevents such learning. The Sages stress that Moses' understanding of the Lord's ways led him to independent actions which the Holy One, Blessed be He, condoned after the fact, such as Moses' decision to break the Tablets of the Covenant.[4] Even knowing the future did not cause him to diverge off course, as we see from his words to the people before they were about to enter the land:  "For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you" (Deut. 31:29), and therefore, "Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end" (Deut. 31:30).

Translated by Rachel Rowen


* Dr. Pinchas Haliwa, Adv. is Director General of the Ashkelon College.  His book, Erekh ha-Shalom ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri, is in press.

[1] In Eight Chapters, Maimonides explains:  "G-d…[informing him] that the goal (he sought) was impossible of attainment, because he was yet a human being…whereas, if he sees only his back, he may possibly recognize him again, but will more probably be in doubt, and confuse him with others.  Likewise, the true comprehension of G-d is a conception of the reality of His existence fixed in the mind of the knower)…" The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics, trans. Joseph I. Gorfinkle, Columbia University Press, New York, 1912, p. 83.

[2] Disappointment is a reaction that is generally guided by emotional dictates of anger, hatred, jealousy, desire for revenge, love, etc.  In human relationships, neutralizing one's negative feelings is almost an impossible task.

[3] Cf. Judah Halevy, The Kuzari, Book II.

[4] Cf. Rashi's commentary on the last verse of the Torah.  Moses, however, was human and, notwithstanding his lofty standing, sinned in striking the rock out of human weakness, due to his anger.  Maimonides refers to this in his Eight Chapters (ch. 4, p. 68):  "Therefore, when they saw that he waxed wrathful, they said, 'He has no moral imperfection…'"

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