This week’s Shabbat is a special shabbat because it happens in the middle of Sukkot.
In the torah portion, we read a section of Shemot, where God tells Moshe that the land of Canaan will be for the Jewish people. Towards the ends of the portion in Perek לג Pasuk יחMoshe makes a request:
“הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ"
"Show me, now, Your glory!"
“לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָֽאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי"
"You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live."
God later continues:
“וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵֽרָאֽוּ"
"you will see My back but My face shall not be seen."
The basic text seems to bring up a number of questions. To begin with, there are thirteen principles of faith in Judaism. One of those principles is the idea that God does not have a physical body. If God does not have a physical body, how can Moshe “see” His back? How can God even have a “back” to show Moshe? Why is looking at God’s “back” safer than looking at God’s face?
One possible answer is given by the Akeidah, a 15th century commentator from Spain. He suggests that by using the word “back” God is asking Moshe to look at his own faults and imperfections. Everything we lack, God has.
In the Torah reading, Moshe learned about God through the negative, the “back.” He couldn’t study God’s attributes positively, through the “front.” God is too good for humans to be able to understand when viewed head on. Instead, Moshe took an indirect approach in studying God by looking at all of the things that are lacking in the world.
Moshe was able to address the flaws he saw and appreciate all of the good things that do exist in the world, the blessings that God gives to humanity. In a sense, he is getting God’s “front.”
According to the Akeidah’s answer, we too can learn about and see God, even if it is only from the “back.” By looking at our own negative attributes and mistakes, we can work on ourselves and transform those negatives into positives. We can improve and appreciate the positive characteristics, just like Moshe did with God.
This message of self-improvement is very relevant to us today, on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot. We have just come out of the High Holidays. We reflected on mistakes and focused on all our flaws.
But now we are in sukkot. It is a time where we go outside and see God’s beauty in nature, all the perfections which are the inverse of our flaws. Let’s take the time over the last few days of the holiday to focus on the positive, turn our focus from the “back,” to the “front,” and turn our flaws into strengths.
Shabbat shalom and Mo’adim l’simcha