Could anything in religion be more perplexing than the sin of the Golden Calf? A major concern of religion is gaining forgiveness, in the aftermath of sin. It is no surprise that we find Moses, entreating God on Israel’s behalf, following the grievous sin of alien worship.
Moses approaches God, pleading the case of Israel, while doing something mind boggling.
He asks to see God’s glory. God responds, “… no one can see God and live.” Of course, there is no physicality to God.
A major principle of Judaism found in the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith by Maimonides (d. 1204) is principle number three — God’s incorporeality.
The intermediate Shabbat during Pesach is always an opportunity to review this magnificent, if perplexing passage in Torah. Moses asks to see the divine glory, God’s face, if you will. Moses begs God, “Please let me have a vision of your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
God replies, “I will make all my good pass before you, and reveal the divine name in Your presence. [But still,] I will have mercy when I choose to have mercy and I will show kindness when I will [choose to] show kindness” (verse 19).
How can we comprehend all of this? The Talmud tells us that the Torah “speaks as in human language.” The Torah is not to be understood in its most literal sense.
The Torah itself makes all of this clear. Moses receives a vision of the back of God, but not God’s face. God is beyond all human comprehension.
Maimonides could not be more explicit on this subject. He writes, “Moses asked two things of God. First, that He should let him know His attributes, and second, that he should reveal His true essence” (Guide, Book I, Chapter 54).
Thus observing God’s actions will lead one to understand His attributes. It is beyond a human’s comprehension to know the true essence of God. Maimonides makes it absolutely clear that there is no physical reality to God.
It is important to think about the place of God’s attributes in Judaism, in order for us to learn to develop proper human characteristics and traits. We look to God’s attributes to know how to be human beings “created in the image of God.”
Individuals can gain an understanding of appropriate personal qualities by studying the actions of God; but how about an entire nation, such as the Jewish people as a whole?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik speaks of the molding of the Jewish character and the emphasis on the ethical in Judaism. If there is something that can be called Jewish traits, he referred to the experience of the Jewish people in Egyptian bondage as crucial to the development of the character of the new nation. The experience of ongoing slavery was a refining process, as smelting a precious metal from ore. Rabbi Soloveitchik draws our attention to the fact that the Torah refers more than 36 times to the nation of Israel knowing the affliction of the suffering and downcast, since we were slaves and strangers in Egypt.
We are taught to imitate God in our actions. As God is merciful and kind, so shall we be. However, it was not enough to emulate God.
Being created in God’s image gives human beings the human capacity to do an act of compassion, to be a “merachem.”
We must consider deeply our character on the national and individual level and see if we fall short of the goal set for us, set by our national experience of servitude and redemption so many thousands of years ago.
Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain.