Friday, April 06, 2007

Hide and Seek

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

The special torah reading for the Shabbat of Passover continues the telling of the Passover saga where the Seder leaves off: the day after the crossing of the sea, and the day after that: forty years of wandering on the way to the promised land. Dayenu, they say, the tired ex slaves, on their eternal journey to freedom - enough already! but the story (like some seders) persists, and, fed by manna, torn by ongoing strife, the children of Israel trudge on through the wilderness on their way home. But not really. None of the 'children' who left Egypt will actually make it there, their children, the next generation, born in Sinai will inherit the promise. Residues of how bitterly this story ends for so many are still in our teeth this post seder morning – left over horseradish, bits of matza – yes, we won and here we are, but at what price freedom? Would they have left Egypt knowing that they will die in unmarked graves in the middle of nowhere? Given the same opportunity today, would any one of us make that sacrifice? Would any of us have this level of FAITH in the unknown?

Faith is a big deal in this Passover story. Perhaps that's why our ancient sages chose the "post golden calf" scenario for the weekly torah telling that falls on Passover – telling us something about hindsight and perspective, teasing our endless fascination with wanting to believe and know what comes ahead. Even Moses, the greatest prophet, is eager to know what's ahead, not only that – he wants to SEE the head---the very face of the boss for whom he labors. In a famous passage in Exodus 33 – the bulk of this week's tale – he pleads with the Divine for forgiveness for the cattle worshipping Hebrews (granted, sort of), and demands to see or know who God is. What follows is a cryptic description of a revelation far more intimate than Sinai – for most translators render the event as 'God showing Moses God's behind', quite literally. Some translators surprise us by taking this metaphor deeper – addressing the human demand for empirical knowledge that will enhance faith AND the seemingly Divine reluctance to supply this 'proof'.

In chapter 33 God instructs Moses to stand inside the cleft of a rock, eyes covered by God's hands, until the following happens:

33:23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen. (King James Bible)

Here the translators added a footnote to the word 'back': 'As much of my glory as in this mortal life you are able to see'

Most translators render the Hebrew word 'Achorai" as 'God's back parts', breezing through this shocking striptease without a flinch. Michelangelo went as far as depicting the very muscular behind of the Lord on the very ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – two panels away from that famous finger (how did he get away with THAT??) But the classic Jewish translators simply couldn't bring themselves to portray God in such human and disturbingly mundane terms, going out on a limb to translate this verse as allegory:

The Aramaic Pseudo Jonathan translation provides one amazing image based on lore – God showing Moses the Divine (and possibly feminine ) nape – adorned with the leather phylacteries – Tefilin shel rosh, a blurred vision amid a mob of angels:

"And I will make the host of angels who stand and minister before Me to pass by, and you shall see the edge of the tephillin of My glorious Presence ; but the face of the glory of My Presence you can not be able to see. "

Meanwhile Onkelos, the other premiere Aramaic translator, usually quite literal, goes all philosophical:

'and I will take away the word of My Glory, and you shall see that which is after Me, but My Aspect shall not be seen.'

There is a lot of hide and seek going on during a Passover seder – broken matzas traded in for expectations and prizes. But maybe the real hide and seek is more internal, echoed in this mysterious passage. If even the greatest of prophets gets to only know the true meaning of the past, but not the future, what of us mere mortals? And perhaps the seeking is even deeper – the search for faith – for the ultimate proof of God, the possibility of hope in narrow places and hard times, the promise of redemption, something to hold on to during the long way home. It may not be much, but for us at Lauviticus Headquarters, seeing God's ass is plenty of comfort, and we walk on, single file, all the way to the next part of the story.