Ki Tissa: Suffering


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.

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 33:18;20).

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].

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 see it…

… 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 too terrifying.

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


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
17 years ago

Everything can betaken from us except the freedom to choose how to respond (see: Viktor Frankl)

Lynn Rice
17 years ago

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love G-d, to them who are the called according to His purpose. Our 27 year old son died in a small plane crash on December 21, 2006. We know that that moment was the best moment in his life to be taken, and that G-d had a purpose in taking him at that moment. We do not question Why? because we know that moment was best for our son, and that G-d has a purpose for that timely death. Through this, we have seen others brought closer to G-d, and values and perspectives re-examined. We miss him, but we know this was the best time for him to be taken.

17 years ago

You asked for things that help soothe a broken heart. Ive had a lot of suffering in the past, including horrific suffering in the past year and especially 5 months.

Staying calm.
Resting, being quiet and seeing what ideas and helpful thoughts and intuitions come to us.
Knowing G-d is in control not any person who we wish would act differently.
Staying optimistic that the future will be better.
Having a few soothing friends who are capable of listening and understanding as many people are not and will do the worst most shocking things during the most shocking of times.
Putting your health first during those times.
Trying to do whatever I could do daily for any areas including resting for my health rather than just being depressed. In other words stop crying and keep trying for any area I could.
I take natural remedies that help me aconite for shock, and others that help through terribly traumatic times without causing damage.
Finding professionals who are supportive including in natural fields such as acupuncture kinisiology.
Keep pictures on our head of what we want not of the terrible things happening.
Being grateful for all good as it always can get much much much worse. There is so much we have that we don’t appreciate and a bit like with the spies the Jews cried so G-d said He would give them a reason to cry for. Instead always try to stay grateful and hopeful knowing it always could be very very very much worse.
I found the secret” a new book dvd very helpful in keeping a positive focus.
I once heard from a woman who survived the holocaust a helpful attitude that every day is a victory.
Sticking with gentle people who are on track and staying clear of those who aren’t doing nurturing things.
Having realistic expectations of ourselves.
Finding shortcuts to minimize demands and give ourselves time to deal with the demands of a situation.
I found it helpful to have a large exercise book to write in my thoughts feelings or things I needed to remember or anything on any regular topic.
Prayer and visualization, asking for a visualizing what we would like to happen rather than dwelling on the negative situation is helpful and I believe attracts miracles.
Trust your own feelings for everything. Consult friends or experts if you like but at the end of the day follow what feels right for you and don’t follow what doesn’t feel right for you. People with credentials or older people or other people are not wiser than you. We have been endowed with the best wisdom and intuition for our own lives. So don’t be pushed into things that don’t feel right, even if something seems logical but doesnt feel right
Trust in Hashem even though we dont know how we will be looked after we will be and the trusting attracts it more.

17 years ago

The only thing I tell myself is that if we possess a piece of G-d inside us-and we do for each Jew has a neshama-well then, G-d could only be handling us with love and care. It is Himself that He is handling. We are Him. That means that any suffering and pain is coming from our perception-in reality we are being dealt with goodness.

thats what comforts me-to know that the bad is really good.

Dan Dzindzihashvili
17 years ago


Hi Rabbi Jacobson.

Your essay about suffering has really hit home.

My wife and I just returned from Israel yesterday morning.

It was her first time there in 7 years and my first time in 16 years.

I’m sure you remember the Chabad representative of our community of the Georgian Jews, Rabbi Aharon Chein.

He happened to be there with his wife, Yocheved Chein, too.

On Friday, March 9, 2007, Rabbi Chein’s wife, Yocheved Chein and her mother Rachel Tzedek Schneerson were killed in a rear end collision. Rabbi Aharon Chein survived with many broken ribs and a broken heart. It turns out that there were 17 car accidents that day.

My wife and I are very close friends of the Chein family. She is especially close to their 2 daughters as they are of the same age.

A few weeks ago we were visiting them after Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. It was there that my wife and I decided to go to Israel. Rabbi Chein and his wife were going to be there too for the yahrzeit of the Rebbetzin’s father, Rabbi Shmuel zt’l. Also, it was going to be Rabbi Chein’s niece’s bat mitzvah.

On paper we had a schedule and had wonderful experiences in Israel for that whole week covering every area we could in a short period of time, including going to the Dead Sea, Haifa, Yaffo, the graves of the tzadikim in Tiberias, Tzfat, and Meron, etc. Then on that Friday afternoon on March 9, 2007 we were supposed to meet the Cheins for a quick pizza in Jerusalem at 10:30AM. We got a call on our cell phone from their daughter that the meeting was cancelled and she hung up. She then called an hour later and said that her grandmother was killed in a car accident. Then she called back another hour later and said that her mother passed away on the operating table in Kaplan Hospital in Rechovot.

We were staying with wonderful old friends in Beth El – Alex and Tzippie Traimen. (Alex is a reporter for Arutz Sheva.) They recently made aliyah from Queens 2 years ago. They were also close friends of the Chein family and they were also going to meet the Cheins with us for pizza.

My wife and I were supposed to spend Shabbat in Jerusalem in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim at the home of another Georgian couple that made aliyah. Instead, my wife and I spent Shabbat in Kaplan Hospital with Rabbi Chein. Tzippie Traimen was there with us too as her husband had to stay in Beth El with their 2 beautiful kids, as they couldn’t find a baby sitter.

It turns out that Rabbi Chein and his wife and his mother in law were on the way to the cemetery to visit the grave of Rabbi Shmuel zt’l. Rabbi Aharon had rented a car that week. He was the driver and the front seat passenger was his mother in law. Yocheved was in the back. They were at a full stop for a red light when a truck driven by another Jew, rear-ended their vehicle. Based on the pictures in the media, the car looked like an accordion. Rabbi Aharon’s mother in law passed away on the spot. Rabbi Aharon and Yocheved were taken to the closest hospital in Rechovot.

Alex dropped us off at the central bus station in Jerusalem so that we can take the next bus to Rechovot before Shabbat. My wife and Tzippie read tehillim and intercepted various frantic calls coming from NYC on their cell phones.

It turns out that the only organ still working in Yocheved was her heart. The doctors asked if they should still continue trying to save her. The answer from her children was, “Hell, yeah.!” Some time later the news came and Rabbi Aharon cried. The last time I saw him cry was during services of Yom Kippur as he was giving it his all for the refuah of his ill father.

I received a call from my aunt in Or Yehuda if I wanted to get a ride there and spend Shabbat there. I told her it’s my Rabbi. He needs us. Luckily, Kaplan hospital has a special lounge with couches in separate rooms for men and women whose relatives are patients and need a place to stay as those folks staying are assumed to be shomer Shabbat.

So many striking images come to my mind as I recall that Shabbat in Rechovot.

First of all, there was a brit milah in NYC on the morning of March 1, 2007. An acquaintance had her grandson’s brit milah that morning. I was late, but still able to catch the father of the baby to say mazel tov. There was no meal served, as that was the day of the Fast of Esther. As I was exiting the synagogue, Yocheved, who also happened to be there (her flight would be the following Monday night) blessed me for a safe trip and that she’d see us there. Then she quickly handed me $2 so that I could give that money as tzedakah as well as a segulah to fulfill my mission as a messenger, etc.

Once a month Yocheved would make cholent for the youth minyan of our shul as an attempt for kiruv. Now, there is no one to make cholent.

Her eldest daughter, Nechama Dina, was relating a story of how her mother didn’t want to come on this trip. Though she eventually went on this sojourn, she then was resistant in going to the actual cemetery. It turns out that her father, Rabbi Shmuel zt’l was 44 years old when he passed away on the 19th of Adar 23 years ago. March 9, 2007 was also the 19th of Adar. Yocheved was also 44 years old. Now the family observes 3 yarztzeits on the 19th of Adar. Rabbi Aharon said little during our stay in the hospital. He quoted something from the gemara, which says that when a person reaches the same age as the age that one of his or her parents passed away, that that person should be especially careful that year. Furthermore, it turns out that Yocheved’s mother, Rachel, had a dream the night before which she related to one of her sons that morning, that she saw the end of her days.

Also, the night before, it turns out that Yocheved called her 4 sons in the U.S. She called many other people. It turns out she called everyone close to her – a cryptic good-bye.

Two nights before, Wednesday night, was the bat mitzvah. Yocheved practically took pictures with everyone there. There’s one picture, a group picture, where Yocheved is standing outside the group smiling at everyone observing.

Pesach is coming close and it turns out that she was 2/3 finished in regards to cleaning for chometz. In her home in Queens, she took out all of her clothes and laid them on top of her bed and covered them with a white sheet. Common sense would say that she wanted to prevent dust from gathering on the clothes. From a spiritual perspective, one could see that she made everything easy for everyone.

As we spent Shabbat in the hospital, our concern was for Rabbi Aharon. He needed help moving around and was told to walk as much as possible to prevent an infection of the lungs from the broken ribs. Helping him walk was easy. Keeping his spirits up was difficult.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe had many personal photographers. One of them was Mr. Eli Yonah. He walked 2.5 hours to visit Rabbi Aharon Shabbat afternoon. I sat in the room with Mr. Yohah and Moti, a young friend of the family. Moti is the son of a prominent Georgian Rabbi in Kiryat Atta. Moti also has a beautiful voice. We sat there singing Shabbat and Chabad nigguns. We all knew that you have to be happy on Shabbat, no matter what.

Earlier in the afternoon, it turns out that the other daughter, Devorah Leah, had approached one of the nurses about seeing Yocheved’s body. He was agreeable on the condition that we caused no balagan. We were escorted to another side of the hospital where the corpses were held in refrigerators. She was in box number 6. I could not believe my eyes as the nurse unzipped the body bag. Yocheved had a smile on her face from ear to ear. I also thought that she’d wake up and ask us to keep the noise down. But this was the exclamation mark. We had to see it to believe it.

We then left the room and washed our hands. We stood outside dividing and assigning chapters of tehillim amongst our selves. How can you not tell someone of the smile on this tzadeket, even when she’s no longer here?

Shabbat passed and many calls came along with visitors. They could not take away Rabbi Aharon’s pain.

On Sunday at the levaya in Kiryay Malachi there were 2,800 people gathered. There were many prominent Chabad Rabbis there too. All of them mentioned Yocheved’s big heart, her love of the Rebbe, her zest for life, love, and mitzvot, as well as all Jews. Sometimes in our community, there are still some events with mixed dancing. Yocheved would grab the kallah and try to get at least 15 minutes of separate dancing. Who can fill her shoes now?

It was a very dramatic moment at the levaya as the remainder of her children grabbed the first plane out of NYC motzei Shabbat. They arrived in Kiryat Malachi right towards the end of the levaya and the bawling from the onlookers was overwhelming. This was no movie. This was drama in action. Later on, the procession took her body to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. (Yocheved’s mom, Mrs. Rachel Tzedek Schneerson, was buried on Friday, two days earlier.)

She is the mother of 6 kids. Two are married. One is half way there to obtaining a smicha. Now she won’t be there to dance at the simchas for her other children. But, I do know that she’ll be there in spirit, smiling. That’s the last image I will have of her – smiling and at peace.

I also have to acknowledge just how important Yocheved was to my wife and I. It was Yocheved that went with my wife to purchase her first hair covering. It’s because of Rabbi Aharon that I started to wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.

Yocheved was also an inspiration. Yocheved enrolled in an undergraduate institution in Queens where she would be a double major – English and computers. This past semester, she had 3 A’s and one A-. It gave her such pleasure to learn to communicate with her children via e-mail.

What about her special salad dressing that she was famous for? This may sound selfish, but that was a part of my oneg Shabbat.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

I’ve attended many funerals and recall being moved emotionally. However, this is the first funeral where I cried a running sink of tears.

I recall a lecture I attended which Ohr Sameach hosted. The esteemed talmid chacham, Rabbi Berel Wein was one of the speakers. He has a special speaking style and one thing he said was, “We want Mashiach now? What chutzpah?! Hashem decides when Mashiach will come!” I have to disagree. We as a Jewish nation have to demand his coming right away. The pain in this galut has to end.

There are times we can all recall Yocheved saying something in Georgian to many people as a point of encouragement. She’d scream, “Wake up, you ostriches. Mashiach is coming!”

I end by saying Mashiach is ready to come. However, he’s stuck in traffic – and we’re the one’s holding him up with our bad driving.

James Gawron
17 years ago

Too often today we talk about relationships and mean only our relationship Man to Man. When terrible suffering occurs (The Holocaust is the supreme example) we focus on Mans suffering and what we can do as Man to help. If by this we mean to focus all our energy on our Man to Man relationship then we miss a vital point. Extreme suffering can rend any persons relationship to God. Once the Man to God relationship is lost tremendous further damage is done to the person by this side effect. When trying to help those who experience great suffering we must remember that helping repair the damage to their Man to God relationship may be the greatest kindness we can bestow. To do this is to control our own ego. We cannot fill their void with our help alone. Even our theraputic models put much to much emphasis on the therapist patient relationship. If the therapist cannot quickly transfer the patients attention back to the patients relationship to God then the therapy becomes a new form of idol worship. The therapy itself would be an averrah. If like Moses at the burning bush we dont have the courage to see this there will be consequences. A subtle agnostic materialism pervades much of our modern life. We must have the courage to look our modern social scientific point of view in the face and see that it is not only not the cure but more often the root of our agnosticism and self worship. Jung himself admitted that the goal of therapy should be to return man to his faith (Freud was much more eager to annoint himself a new Kohan Gadol of the agnostics). Unfortunately, Jungs methodology would be similar to someone reading every book in the Library of Congress with the eventual intention of reading the Torah. Life simply isnt that long. Our meaningful purpose must be to grab and hold on to the tree of life Torah. We must have faith that our teshuvah our return to God will be its own reward.

The Meaningful Life Center