Parshat Chol HaMoed Pesach

Torah Reading for Week of April 17-23, 2011

“Two Ways of Knowing”
By Muriel Dance, PhD, AJRCA Third Year Chaplaincy Student

This parshah concludes with instructions about Pesach, no doubt a major reason for its use on this particular Shabbat.  It begins after Moses has come down from Mt Sinai with the tablets to find the people have made a molten calf, and he has asked G-d’s forgiveness for this terrible sin.  At this low moment Moses has heard that he’s to take the people to Canaan, he’s seen the people’s grief in response to the instructions, and he sets the Tent of meeting outside the camp to speak with G-d face-to-face.

Moses must be in a difficult dilemma; he has followed G-d’s instructions, received the Ten Commandments, and his authority has been rejected. In the dialogue between G-d and Moses, Moses requests to know G-d two times.  In verse 13, Moses asks, “pray let me know Your ways that I may know You and continue in Your favor,” and in verse 18, Moses asks, “to behold Your Presence.”  The verb for to know (Yud Daaled Ayin) appears six times in twelve lines.  In verse 13, “know” is in a causative and imperative form, “cause me to know.”  If Moses can be instructed in G-d’s ways, he will know G-d.  Sforno comments that G-d’s ways include both present existence and the future.  Rashi suggests that Moses wants to know G-d’s essence. From a human perspective, humans can gain knowledge of the form from the actions of the doer, the manifestations.  Moses seems to make a request for intellectual knowledge- Da’at.  This kind of knowledge is associated in Moses’ mind with G-d’s favor.  Rambam supports the interpretation that Moses wants both an intellectual and a visible and visual perception of G-d.

In the second request Moses seems to want visual knowledge of G-d.  Rashi notes that Moses is making an individual request.  Usually G-d’s Presence (the Hebrew is kavod) is distant from the observer and initiated by God. G-d grants the first request and only a part of the second.  G-d explains that Moses does not have the capacity to see Him.  According to Sforno, Moses will be unable to receive the outpouring of light. Moses can see His actions; hence G-d’s promise to show him his Goodness.   G-d provides a safe place for Moses, and he glimpses G-d’s back.

After this partial vision, Moses is instructed to carve a second set of tablets and return to Mt. Sinai. On the mountaintop for a second time Moses receives an intellectual enumeration of G-d’s essence, a list of thirteen attributes that appears again and again in the liturgy:  “A G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Ex. 34: 6-7).  The intellectual knowing prevails over the perception of our senses.  Knowledge (Da’at) has several Hebrew synonyms (Binah, Hochmah) which in the mystical tradition connote the highest level humans can aspire to in approaching the Divine.  The tablets themselves are viewed as a representation of G-d’s mind.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught “Everything puzzling and confused people see is called G-d’s back.  But no human can see His face, where everything is harmony.”  While like Moses, we cannot see G-d’s face, we can imitate the attributes G-d as described and communicated to Moses. May your Pesach observance strengthen your ability to know G-d’s qualities.