The View from the Rocks – Following in G-d’s Footsteps

By Rabbi Adam Friedmann

Member of Yeshiva University Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov in Toronto 
Currently studying at the Eretz Hemdah Institute.

Bnei Yisrael are waiting for Moshe to descend from Har Sinai. It has been a long time. Bnei Yisrael get restless. It is important for us consider things from their perspective. They were taken out of the only life they had ever known in Egypt and trekked out into the middle of the desert. The one guiding them through this precarious journey, and their connection to G-d, was Moshe. But then Moshe went up a mountain and into an ominous looking fire-cloud with no food, and, at a simple reading of the pesukim, without telling them when he was going to come back. Cast in this light, Bnei Yisrael’s concern about whether Moshe was alive is understandable. Their reaction to Moshe’s disappearance, however, was not.

What exactly was the sin of the golden calf? Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari (1:97:4-11) argues that the sin was not avodah zarah. There was no worship of a foreign god. The real sin was far more subtle, and emerges from the text itself:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god (א-להים) who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Shemot 32:1)

The key here is the word א-להים. According to the Kuzari this is not a reference to another god but rather to another authority or leader (Moshe himself is called א-להים. see Shemot 7:1) The attempt was not to subvert Moshe and suddenly follow another god, but to make another representative of Hashem to replace Moshe. Bnei Yisrael’s failing was that they needed a tangible object of worship. They couldn’t handle a reality in which they served a G-d who could not be seen and had no physical manifestation at all.

The result of this sin was a breach in the relationship that had been forged at Har Sinai. Bnei Yisrael’s actions indicated that they couldn’t handle being close to G-d. The consequence was that G-d withdrew Himself from the nation. The Ohel Moed, where G-d would speak to Moshe, was visibly removed from the camp. It seemed that the relationship was fundamentally broken.

At some point after this, for reasons not made clear to us, Moshe prays to G-d. He does not want the relationship to end. He pleads for a way for Bnei Yisrael to find favor in G-d’s eyes again, for Him to relent, and agree to enter the camp again. Moshe pushes further. Not only does he want G-d to be part of the camp but he wants Bnei Yisrael to be His one and only – ונפלינו- let us be different from all other nations. G-d grants this as well. Finally, Moshe asks to see G-d Himself. At this point, G-d declines. He agrees to appear to Moshe, but only to reveal a vision of what is “behind Him”. Rashi (Shemot 33:23) interprets this to mean that G-d shows Moshe the knot of His tefillin. 

Apparently at this point the relationship has been restored. G-d agrees to dwell in the camp. Has anything changed in this new reality? They key may lie in Moshe’s vision of G-d’s back. Why show Moshe the tefillin knot? Rabbi Yaakov Medan suggests that Moshe was meant to understand that a knot in back means teffilin in the front. The Gemara (Berachot 6a) tells us that the text in G-d’s tefillin is focused on the greatness of Bnei Yisrael. G-d was telling Moshe that Bnei Yisrael are His one and only, and that He is committed to them forever. But now a new way of having the relationship emerges. G-d is there, but we have to find Him. Just like we infer from the tefillin knot that there is tefillin, we cannot access G-d directly. We have to consider what He “leaves behind”, His actions, the creation around us, and discover His presence on our own.

The result of this new paradigm is a remedy for the sin of the calf. When G-d appears and overwhelms us we are unable to fathom it. We feel the need create a tangible place holder. But when we search for Him in and through every experience, and find Him there, then our everyday lives become infused with His presence.

The message for us is clear. G-d is waiting. His tefillin are on. It is up to us to look around carefully, to think deeply, and in this way to discover the vision of G-d that is waiting for each of us.

Comments to: friedmann.a@gmail.com