When I Wanted You Did Not
Today I attended a tragic funeral. All funerals
are tragic, but some appear worse than others. Especially
when a beautiful man, 61 years old, is killed by a drunken
driver, leaving a grieving wife, ten children and countless
relatives and friends traumatized.
Every tragic death reminds us (or should remind us) of
all other senseless losses – and unbearable pain –
beknownst or unbeknownst to us. How many broken hearts are
crying around the world at this very moment? How do we respond
to the millions of tears shed and the piercing screams echoing
through the corridors of history?
The timeless question
– why? why do terrible things happen to good people? – resurfaces its naked
head in these timely moments of agony.
The death of an individual
evokes the memory of all deaths from the beginning of time.
In difficult times like these, we have no where to turn
but to the eternal strength we glean from those that faced
the abyss before us.
None other than the great
Moses confronts G-d with this greatest of challenges in this week’s Torah
portion. Actually, the story begins earlier when Moses first “meets” G-d at
the burning bush.
In perhaps the most dramatic episode in the entire Torah,
this week’s portion recounts the intimate dialogue
between Moses and G-d, as Moses implores the Almighty to
forgive the Jewish people for their terrible sin of building
and worshipping the Golden Calf. (See The
Face of G-d for a more elaborate discussion on
As Moses attempts to elicit the Divine compassion, he asks
G-d “I beg you, please show me Your Glory.”
G-d rejects Moses with the memorable words: “You cannot
see My face, for no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus
A strange Talmud explains
that G-d rejected Moses’ request because of an earlier event. When G-d appeared
to Moses at the burning bush, Moses refused to look, as it says, “And Moses
hid his face, for he feared to look upon G-d” (Exodus 3:6). “Now that you
want to see My Face,” G-d said, “I am not willing to show it to you.” “When
I wanted you didn’t want; now when you want, I don’t want.” (Berachot 7a).
The Midrash elaborates: “Moses did not act accordingly
by hiding his face. Had he not hidden his face G-d would
have revealed to Moses what is above and what is below,
what was and what will be in the future. Finally, when Moses
did request to see the Divine face, G-d informed him that
‘no man shall see Me and live.’ When I wanted,
you didn't want, and now that you want, I don't want”
(Shemot Rabba 3:1. 45:5).
What is the meaning behind G-d’s bizarre reaction?
It’s impossible to say that G-d was being “petty”
and angrily getting even with Moses?! Either Moses deserved
to see the Divine face or he didn’t deserve to see
it? Why would it be dependent on Moses’ not wanting
to see G-d’s face at the burning bush?
Indeed, a second opinion
in the Talmud and Midrash holds that Moses was honoring G-d by not looking
at His face, and he was subsequently rewarded for his respect.
Additionally, the verse
de facto suggests that Moses could not see G-d’s face because of an objective
reason – “no man can see the Divine face and live.” The Talmud is implying
that had Moses chosen to look at G-d’s face in the burning bush he now would
be able to see the Divine Face and live.
And finally, why indeed
did Moses not want to look at G-d’s face in the burning bush? And now he suddenly
developed a craving to do so?
Clearly, the burning bush
and G-d’s face in the bush is a major event, which requires deeper examination.
Let’s read the verse closely: “G-d's angel appeared to
[Moses] in the heart of a fire, in the middle of a thorn-bush.
As he looked, [Moses] realized that the bush was burning,
but was not being consumed. Moses said [to himself], 'I
must go over there and investigate this great phenomenon.
Why doesn't the bush burn?' When G-d saw that [Moses] was
going to investigate, He called to him from the middle of
the bush. 'Moses, Moses!' He said. 'Yes,' replied [Moses].
'Do not come any closer,' said [G-d]. 'Take your shoes off
your feet. The place upon which you are standing is holy
ground'… Moses hid his face, since he was afraid to look
at the Divine. G-d said, 'I have indeed seen the suffering
of My people in Egypt. I have heard how they cry out because of
what their slave-drivers [do], and I am aware of their pain.
I have come down to rescue them from Egypt's power. I will bring them out of that land,
to a good, spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and
honey” (Exodus 3:2-8).
G-d’s words from within the burning bush – “I have indeed seen the suffering
of My people…I have heard how they cry out” – explains why
G-d appeared, of all places, in a burning thorn-bush. Had
G-d appeared in, say, a handsome fruit tree, Moses would
have challenged G-d and asked: “It’s very nice that you
appear in beauty, but do you also feel our human pain?!
You want me to challenge the depraved Pharaoh and insist
that he stop the genocide and release the enslaved Jews.
But everyone will ask ‘where is G-d in all our suffering.
Maybe G-d exists only in good times but not in bad ones.
Perhaps you don’t have the power to confront evil’.”
To pre-empt these fundamental
questions, G-d appeared in the lowly thorn-bush in order to demonstrate that
“I am with you in your pain and suffering” (see Rashi. Tanchuma 14), and that
there is no place devoid of the Divine (Mechilta. Shemot Rabba 1:9. Torat
Shlomo on the verse).
And now, G-d wanted to
show Moses the deeper mystery of good and evil, life and death – “what is
above and what is below, what was and what will be.”
But Moses did not want to see G-d’s face in the Holocaust.
He did not want to “understand” G-d’s
“reasoning” for allowing the death of millions
of innocent children. He wasn’t willing to face the
ultimate paradox and “hear” Divine explanations
for human suffering. “He feared to look upon G-d”
when he saw the lives being consumed by the burning bush,
even as the bush itself was not being consumed. Moses “hid
his face” and just wanted to cry.
But then time passed and things changed. G-d lived up to His promise and
delivered the Jews from the clutches of their Egyptian tormentors.
G-d demonstrated that He indeed was together with the people
in their suffering, and finally redeemed them through His
chosen leader, Moses.
Things seemed to be going very well. Following the Exodus,
Moses led the Jewish nation to Sinai, where they experienced
the greatest revelation in history: The giving of the Divine
mandate to the human race. But then the tide turned again.
While Moses was relishing in the Divine delights atop Sinai,
the people below built and worshipped the Golden Calf. This
time the catastrophe did not come at the hands of the Egyptians,
but by fault of the Jews themselves.
Moses, descending from the mountain, realized the high stakes: How can he
elicit G-d’s compassion in the face of such a grave
crime? How can he offer the flawed human being hope after
a great fall? Moses knew that now he needed to return to
the “burning bush,” the place where good and
evil meet, where joy and suffering converge – the
place where the Divine can be found in the darkest corners
of existence. He understood that only this impenetrable
place contained the answer to solve the ultimate paradox:
How to repent from sin; how to heal from wounds –
how the “bush can burn and not be consumed”
– the power of Teshuvah. [By breaking the tablets
Moses also demonstrated how the break itself becomes part
of the Divine healing process – see The
Roots of Trauma].
Moses marched back up
the mountain to confront G-d. Moses had matured to a point where he was now
ready to see G-d’s face. He now appreciated the need to enter into the inner
sanctum, into the Divine mystery of human suffering, and wanted to “see” the
Divine face in order to elicit the strength necessary to endure distress for
generations to come.
Moses’ new level of awareness was made possible also by
the fact that in the interim Moses had another experience
on Sinai that empowered him with the ability to face death
– an episode related to an additional, special chapter we
read this Shabbat Parah. The Midrash explains that when
G-d was teaching Moses the methods of purification from
all forms of defilement, Moses was shocked “How can one
be purified from the impurity of death?” “At that moment,
Moses’ face turned pale.” When they reached the section
of the red heifer (read this week), G-d said to Moses: “Now
I will give you the answer,” and proceeded with the mitzvah
of purification from the impurity of death. What Moses exactly
learned was elaborated upon in a previous
column, but we know from this that Moses had
achieved a heightened state of awareness about the mysteries
of life and death.
So at this point, recognizing
the need to heal from the “death” brought upon by the Golden Calf, Moses implored
of G-d “I beg you, show me Your face.” As
the Talmud explains that Moses was plagued by the timeless question why the
good suffer and the wicked prosper (Berachot ibid).
And here G-d revealed
to Moses one of the most profound secrets of all: “I show you My face not
in pleasure, but in the burning bush – in pain and suffering. I show you My
face not when you want to see it, but when I want you to see it.”
“When I wanted you didn’t
want; now when you want, I don’t want.” G-d was not “getting even” with Moses;
He was baring His Essence and telling Moses “I want a partner. I cannot show
you my face if you do not partner with me. Had you looked at me when I wanted
to show you My face, even though it was in pain, then you would have joined
Me in the mysterious journey of grief and joy, and you would be able to see
My face and gather strength. You cannot come and expect to see My face on
your terms – when you like it. You have to respect the moment when I want
to show it to you.”
But the story doesn’t end here. After all is said and done,
G-d did indeed reveal to Moses the secrets of His inner
personality, and the hidden thirteen attributes of Divine
compassion. “I will make all My good pass before you, and
reveal the Divine Name in your presence… [Though] you cannot
see my face, because no man can see me and live, [but] I
have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain.
When My Glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in
the mountain, placing My hand over you until I pass by.
I will then remove My hand and you will see My ‘back,’ and
My face you will not see” (Exodus 33:19-23).
Moreover, commentaries explain that G-d finally showed Moses His face as
well. The verse is to be read as follows: “You will
see My ‘back’ and My face [but My face will
be revealed to you only when] you will not see,” you
will see my face only by not
looking (see Panim Yafot on the verse). Not when
you want to see it on your terms, but when I want you to
... pause …
When we face unfathomable
suffering, we are not expected to be better than Moses. We too close our eyes
and just weep.
Maybe it takes a G-d to witness so much pain and be able
to take it. We just want to be human… We don’t
want to look at G-d’s face in such moments. It’s
Yet, whether we like it
or not, G-d wants us to partner with Him. “Okay,” we say, “but it doesn’t
come easy.” And from time to time, perhaps more often than not, we cry out
in our own vulnerable moments – something G-d can surely forgive – that we
just want some peace and quiet.
Today we were touched
by the mystery of tragedy.
How many more bushes have to be burned before the Divine presence is revealed?
* * *
Question of the Week: Please share
an inspiration that can help soothe a broken heart
a question for future weeks.