Taste of Torah: Hol Hamo’ed Pesah

וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃ 

Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

—Exodus 33:23

 

On Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Pesah, we return to a narrative that we encountered only a few weeks before—that of Moses seeking God’s face. Here, we encounter the prophet questioning after God’s nature, a conversation not unlike the initial one between human and deity at the burning bush—again, Moses seeks to know God, and to learn more deeply about the Divinity to which he is accountable.

However, God asserts, Moses still cannot encounter God’s self face to face, and instead he is sheltered in the cleft of a rock, allowed only to view God’s back. In Berakhot 7a, the Talmud recounts a famous Midrash that what Moses saw was not anything resembling a body, but rather the knot in the back of God’s tefillin. According to this interpretation, what is accessible to Moses is not God’s essential self, but instead God’s glory distilled into a single ritual object. 

The image presented here is a powerful one, full with implications for our understanding of both God’s image and of what it means to act imitatio dei, after the example of the Divine. In the cleft of the rock, shielded by God’s own hand, Moses witnesses not only God’s glory but an echo of future Jewish practice. When the prophet seeks to encounter God’s face, he is instead met with an altogether human image: God’s kavod reflected from behind as a deeply embodied everyday ritual.

Traditionally, tefillin are understood as an ot, a symbol of our covenantal relationship with the Divine. It is a way we can physically affirm a spiritual commitment, binding ourselves each day with mitzvot. This Midrash invites us to imagine a Deity who engages in this ritual alongside us, mirroring our own practice and reaching towards humanity. 

Moses’ vision begs us to examine our own search for the Holy, to discover in which small acts we can feel the Divine striving towards us. This year, our celebration of Pesah finds us in uncertain times. Perhaps our familiar rituals feel interrupted, subject to unwelcome change. Our tradition mandates that each person see themselves as having been liberated from Mitzrayim, from a narrow place. It could be that this year, the suffering of the Exodus story has felt too devastatingly real. But the Passover narrative also insists that we understand ourselves not as taking this journey alone, but with Divine accompaniment. Underneath our ritual striving and retelling, our tradition teaches, a deeper liberation may await—if only we are ready to see the story in our own image. 

Written By Margo Hughes-Robinson

Margo Hughes-Robinson is a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.