"You Shall See My Back"

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha contains two verses which appear to be mutually contradictory. We read, "God spoke with Moshe face to face, as a person speaks with his friend" (33:11); yet afterwards God tells him, "You shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen" (33:22).


We may resolve the contradiction by noting that the first verse refers to a situation in which Moshe is in his tent, outside the camp and separate from the nation, whereas the second verse comes after Moshe has returned to the nation. Following the sin of the golden calf, the spiritual level of the nation fell, and when Moshe dwelled among the nation his prophetic level was similarly affected.


In Parashat Beha'alotekha, Moshe's level of prophecy is described as follows: "Mouth to mouth I speak with him, openly (u-mar'eh), and not in secrets" (Bamidbar 12:8). This is a level that corresponds with "face to face," and belongs to the situation that prevailed prior to the sin. The level of Moshe's prophecy following the sin is like that of the other prophets, summed up in the words, "If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision (be-mar'a)" (ibid. 12:6). Before the sin – "mar'eh;" after the sin – "mar'a." A mirror (mar'a) absorbs up some of the light, and therefore the vision is of a lesser quality. Chazal define the respective levels as a "clear looking-glass" and a "looking-glass that is not clear." This is also the difference between "seeing the face" and "seeing the back:" the latter is more muted.


What is the significance of this distinction? Chazal compare "seeing the face" to tefillin, and "seeing the back" to the knot of the tefillin. We may propose a different comparison, focusing on the "tzitz" (headplate) of the Kohen Gadol. Anyone who looks at the head of the Kohen Gadol from the front sees a strip of gold, inscribed with the words, "Holy unto God." Anyone who looks at his head from behind sees a blue thread. The Gemara (Menachot 43b) explains that the blue dye (tekhelet) is reminiscent of the sea; the sea reflects the sky, and the sky is similar to God's Throne of Glory. Thus, anyone who looked at the Kohen Gadol from the front saw God's Name clearly and explicitly; anyone who looked from behind had to think harder and make certain associations in order to arrive at God.


This reflects the difference between the situation prior to the sin of the golden calf and the situation afterwards. Prior to the sin, Am Yisrael was treated to a natural revelation of the Divine Presence; afterwards, they had to work and expend effort in order to become deserving of God's revelation.


The Midrash (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba, parasha 1, 12:2) recounts that on the night prior to the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people were sleeping, and God had to wake them. (The custom of staying awake to study Torah throughout the night of Shavuot is meant as an eternal "repair" for this failing.) This midrash emphasizes the Jewish people's state of passivity. There was no need to make any effort in order to reach God; Am Yisrael slept, and God came to them. Following the sin, however, we have to search for God: "I shall go and return to My place, until they recognize their offence and seek My face; in their affliction they will seek Me" (Hoshea 5:15). The description in Shir Ha-shirim of the maiden seeking her beloved who has disappeared embodies this idea. Today we remain awake on the night of Shavuot, rather than sleeping with the expectation that God will come and awaken us. Similarly, the Kohen Gadol does not sleep on the night of Yom Kippur; he remains awake in order to be ready for the encounter with God. Yet the encounter in the Kodesh ha-Kodashim takes place in a cloud; it is a muted, obscured revelation.


The differences between the first and second sets of Tablets can also be understood in this light. Ramban explains that the commandments were inscribed on the first tablets as they appear in Parashat Yitro, while the second tablets were inscribed with the text appearing in Parashat Va-Etchanan. There are several discrepancies between these two texts, the most obvious one concerning the commandment of Shabbat. It is possible that Moshe repeats the command about Shabbat in Parashat Vayakhel because its content changed slightly in the second set of tablets. The reason given for Shabbat in Parashat Yitro is, "For six days God created the heavens and the earth, and He rested on the seventh day" (Shemot 20:11). In Parashat Va-Etchanan, the reason is, "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt" (Devarim 5:15). In the first tablets there is no need to work in order to understand the commandment of Shabbat. One needed merely to behold God and imitate Him: just as He rested on the seventh day, so too should we. In the second tablets, we are no longer capable of understanding the commandment simply by observing God; therefore, we need to remember the Exodus from Egypt.


Another difference between the two sets of tablets concerns their form. The first tablets were fashioned by God. It is entirely reasonable to posit that they were not hewn at all; that God simply took slabs of stone and carved the commandments upon them. Prior to the sin, nature was perfect, and God was revealed within it. There was no need to seek God or to make any effort in order to reveal Him; one could simply take a completely ordinary natural artifact and inscribe the commandments upon it. The second set of tablets were hewn by Moshe himself. The Torah gives no description of God telling Moshe how to do this; he must have figured it out himself. The writing here was not "carved" into the tablets (as in the first set) but rather "inscribed" upon them. God was no longer manifestly revealed in nature; it was necessary to repair nature and to seek God within it.


This is the significance of circumcision. We have a tradition that Adam was created already circumcised; there was no need to repair nature. We may understand this differently: he possessed a foreskin but it simply did not present any deficiency or problem; nature was perfect. While Rabbi Akiva taught that man's actions are, in a certain respect, more praiseworthy than God's actions – after all, bread is worth more than kernels of wheat (Tanchuma, Tazria 5) - this is true only after the sin. Adam had no need to bake bread at all; he picked fruits off the trees. Only after his sin was he told, "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread." At this point it became necessary for him to repair nature and to turn the wheat into bread, in order for nature to return to its primordial state of perfection.


Only when Am Yisrael faces difficulty and danger does God reveal Himself and dwell in their midst. (It is for this reason that the Ark of God's Covenant accompanied the nation into war.) In such situations there is no need to work hard in order to find God, "For the Lord your God goes about in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give your enemies before you…" (Devarim 23:15).


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Ki Tisa 5755 [1995].)