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  • April 19, 2014

    Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, Passover Intermediate Days
    Exodus 33:12-34:26

    Dvar Torah by Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport for ReformJudasim.org

    The Cleft in the Rock



    On the Sabbath during Passover, we take a break from the sacred and the profane, from sin and sacrifice, from what fits and what is unfit; we set aside all things Leviticus and step into another world. This week's special portion carries within it one of the most luminous and awe-inspiring images in all of the Torah: Moses, cradled gently in the hand of God, emerges from the cleft of the rock to glimpse a sight of the Divine Presence just as the Glory of God passes by (Exodus 33:21-23).

    This vision is one of the most unabashedly human representations of God as can be found anywhere in the Bible. God has a face, which Moses cannot see. God has a hand, which protects Moses until the moment when God's shining Presence has passed by. And God has a back, which Moses glimpses momentarily, though we have precious little description of what this vision of "God from behind" may have looked like.

    Such anthropomorphisms-in this case, visions of God in human form-drive the classic interpreters of the Torah to distraction. They try desperately to recast these physical characteristics as metaphor and literary device rather than the touchable, tangible, actual descriptions of God's Presence which, we might-on their surface- consider them to be. So strong is the pull of the second commandment not to create for ourselves a picture or an idol of God's physical form that the very allusion to any human characteristics becomes the source of endless consternation and debate.

    I have always sat in wonder at our tradition, which posits an invisible and unknowable God who, nevertheless, has the power to affect our physical world through signs and wonders, who harbors human emotions like compassion and anger, and who has the power to carve ten divine words with a finger on the face of a stone (30:18). Somehow, such completely human descriptions of the Presence of God in our world can pass muster, and yet even the slightest mention of God's physical characteristics launches a legion of commentators to smooth out the "more primitive language" within the text.

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