We savor God at Sukkot, though His face eludes us

Shabbat Hol Hamo'ed Sukkot:

Exodus 33:12-34:26

Numbers 29:26-31

Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

I always puzzle over our Torah reading, read on the Shabbat of Hol Hamo'ed, both of Sukkot and Pesach. The reading begins with the most awe-inspiring of all encounters between Moses and God, and it ends with a rather prosaic listing of the holidays in the liturgical calendar. What links Moses' profound yearning to know God with the details of the sacred calendar? This year, I think I have found a clue.

Our reading begins with the most sublime conversation between Moses and God recorded in the Torah, following the sin of the golden calf. Moses, having managed the immediate crisis, turns to God with a demand. To paraphrase Exodus, Moses says to God: "I must see Your face, if I am to continue to lead this people." God responds, "I will show Myself to you, but you cannot see My face."

Listen to God's language: "You cannot see my face, for a person may not see Me and live…As my Presence passes by…you will see My back; but My face must not be seen" (Exodus 33: 20, 22-23).

Again and again, the text uses the word panai, "My face," as Moshe describes his longing for encounter with God, and God insists that no one can see the Divine face directly and live.

Now we jump to the end of the holiday reading, where we find the expected summary of the liturgical calendar, describing the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

"Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel" (34:23). The Hebrew text, however, contains a peculiar feature. The word translated as "appear" is actually the passive form of the Hebrew verb "will be seen," and yet it is followed by the particle et, as if a direct object followed this passive verb.

Commentators and translators alike accept that this is simply the way the Torah expresses the idea, "all…shall appear before God." I am intrigued, however, by the peculiar use of the direct object in the verse. As written, our verse tantalizes the careful reader with the possibility that the text contains an undercurrent of meaning, in which the verb is active and the direct object makes sense: "All…will see the face of God."

If we take this linguistic hint seriously, we find a contradiction in our text. At the beginning of the reading, God says that Moses may not see the Divine Presence directly. At the end of the reading, we find a hint that one may see God when one celebrates the pilgrimage festivals.

Then again, perhaps there is no contradiction at all. Perhaps the celebration of the festivals is precisely the way that we are meant to apprehend God. If Moshe Rabbenu could not look directly at God's "face," surely we cannot hope for such direct encounter. Yet, during these festive days, we can encounter the reality of God in many ways.

We can find God's presence in the heartfelt prayers and greetings that friends and family exchange throughout this season, speaking to one another from the heart with wishes for a year of blessing, sweetness, and good health. We can surely feel God's presence as we hold the lulav and etrog, evidence of the abundant gifts of nature that God has given us to appreciate. Sitting in the sukkah, we can experience Divine shelter in the midst of life's fragility. When we pray in community, reciting words that have sustained our people throughout our history, we enter a stream of eternal relationship. As we dance with abandon on Simchat Torah, celebrating the gift of Torah, we come very near to the Divine Presence.

Some of us can identify Moses' yearning as our own, recognizing those moments when we long to know and feel God's presence. At times it seems urgent to look God in the face, to ask our questions, to learn the truth, to feel comfort. Most of the time, we must savor the opportunities to rest in the Divine Presence indirectly. The hagim, the holidays, are just such an opportunity. May we use them well.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.