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Shemot: Between emotional empathy and rational empathy

In this week's Torah reading, Moses hides his face from God, perhaps preserving his capacity for compassion

How is one to respond to the suffering, pain and tragedy of another?  If this question is of grave import with regard to individuals, its ramifications are magnified exponentially when applied to a nation: How is a leader to respond to crisis or calamity in his nation?

At the height of the Jewish people’s affliction in ancient Egypt, God seeks to reveal Himself to Moses in the burning bush. Moses, however, “hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon the face of God (Elokim)” (Exodus 3:6).  The Midrash (Exodus Rabba 3:1) debates the propriety of Moses’ reaction:

  • Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha said: It was not good of Moses to hide his face, for had he not hidden his face God would have shown him what is above and what is below, what went before and what would come in the future; and in the end he asked to see this, as it is said: “Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory (kevodecha)” (Exodus 33:18). …
  • Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin said: Nevertheless, God showed Himself to him. In reward for Moses hiding his face, “the Lord (Hashem) spoke to Moses face to face” (Exodus 33:11).
  • Rabbi Hoshaiah said: It was good that Moses hid his face. God said to him: I came to show you My face, and you paid me respect by hiding your face; by My word, you are destined to be on the mountain with Me for forty days and forty nights, neither eating nor drinking, and you are destined to enjoy the radiance of the Divine Presence (shekhinah), as it is said, “Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant” (Exodus 34:29).

According to Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, Moses squandered the opportunity of a lifetime to see God’s very glory (kevodehca).  And what exactly is that “glory”? A parallel Midrash (Exodus Rabba 45:5) explains that Moses’ later request to see God’s glory was an appeal to understand the conundrum of why the righteous suffer and why the wicked prosper. The attempt to reconcile this eternal riddle is known as theodicy. Seeing God’s face or God’s glory, explains the Midrash, is synonymous with resolving theodicy. To relinquish such an opportunity, argues Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, is inexcusable.

Rabbi Hoshaiah disagrees, explaining that Moses, in turning away from this knowledge, displayed due respect for God and thus merited to enjoy the “Divine Presence” (shekhinah). But what merit, we must ask, inheres in the refusal of knowledge, indeed, knowledge of the innermost secrets of God’s creation?  Rabbi Soloveitchik asks precisely this question and responds as follows:

Moses had the opportunity to penetrate the very core of the world, to experience all the secrets and to understand the ways of God, His judgment and guidance of creation… yet he trembled at the possibility of being all-knowing … Why? Because he realized that if he were to know everything he would lose his compassion and love towards his fellow, towards those in need, those suffering. “He was afraid to look upon the face of God (Elokim)” – to understand God’s judgment too deeply; for, if he were to truly understand, he would realize the truth that, in fact, there is no evil in the world. … He would see the world in its totality and realize that everything – death, sickness, poverty, suffering and loneliness – is good, is purposive.  …  Set before Moses was the choice to attain knowledge and lose compassion or to remain without knowledge and merit compassion.  Moses chose the latter; he so loved the children of Israel that for their sake he sacrificed the greatest and most precious human aspiration – to know God.

In contrast to Moses, the Talmud (Hagigah 14b) tells of four individuals who were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to attain this knowledge of God: “Our Rabbis taught: four men entered the ‘Garden’ (pardes), namely, Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiba.”  Meir Becker, in an article entitled “Rabbi Akiva and Theodicy,” analyzes each of the four individuals and concludes that, living as they did after the destruction of the second Temple and witness to the brutal Hadrianic persecutions, they all entered the “Garden” in an attempt to obtain an answer to the conundrum of why the righteous suffer.

Such an adventure, however, is fraught with danger, as God says, “Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20). And so while four entered the “Garden” only one emerged “in peace”: Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud explains that Rabbi Akiva was so genuine in his desire to cleave to God that when the angels sought to eject him from the heavenly abode, God Himself said, “Let this elder be, for he is worthy to avail himself of My glory” (Hagigah 15b). As mentioned, God’s “glory” is the knowledge of God’s judgment. The Talmud, as such, attests to the fact that Rabbi Akiva attained the knowledge he sought – of God’s “glory” – of understanding theodicy.[1]

How did this impact on Rabbi Akiva? The Talmud tells numerous stories of Rabbi Akiva that, while difficult to arrange chronologically, paint a portrait of someone who “availed himself of God’s glory”.

In one story, Rabbi Akiva was refused lodging in a city and, upon being forced to camp in the wild, lost his belongings. Nevertheless, at each loss he espoused his belief that “everything that God does is for the good.” In another, more dramatic, application of this philosophy, Rabbi Akiva visits his teacher who is suffering on his deathbed. While all the students there cry in the pain of their teacher, Rabbi Akiva “laughs,” explaining that suffering atones for iniquity and, as such, their teacher will now receive his eternal reward without taint. And if this wasn’t enough, when the students begin to laud their teacher in the throes of death, Rabbi Akiva says, “Beloved is suffering.”

It seems that, as Rabbi Soloveitchik predicted, knowing the secrets of creation made him cold to pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that if Moses sacrificed his knowledge on the altar of compassion, Rabbi Akiva sacrificed his compassion on the altar of knowledge.

However, while Rabbi Akiva’s knowledge of the secrets of creation, of theodicy, made him emotionally detached, it also had a profoundly positive affect. The Talmud tells of a time when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were viewing the ruins of the Temple and saw a fox run out of the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies. The colleagues began to cry; Rabbi Akiva began to laugh.  He explained that seeing the prophecy of destruction realized affirmed for him that the eschatological prophecy of perfection would also be realized.  At this his colleagues responded, “Akiva you have comforted us, Akiva you have comforted us.”

And so Rabbi Akiva, by being emotionally detached, was able to provide solace to a generation that lost all hope. He did so because he understood the secrets of creation, he understood theodicy and was able to look beyond the present destruction to the halcyon end. Viktor Frankl wrote:

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.

Rabbi Akiva was ever able to find meaning, even in the depths of destruction. Indeed, even in his very death, his very brutal death, was he able to find meaning and accept his own torture with equanimity (Berachot 61b).

What is the appropriate response to suffering? Perhaps there is no single answer; perhaps it is a matter of circumstance. Perhaps that is why the Midrash brings the two opposing opinions. For Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, who was Rabbi Akiva’s own son, he knew that their generation was in need of a leader who could provide the strength and solace, the rational empathy, that only comes with the knowledge of “God’s glory.” On the other hand, Rabbi Hoshaiah understood that if Moses did not maintain the deep compassion, the emotional empathy, toward the newborn nation, he would have concurred with God’s judgment many times over in the course of leading them to the Promised Land and, as such, been the only one to actually enter it. Maybe this is why the middle opinion of Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin does not disagree with Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, but merely states that Moses, in his time, was rewarded.


[1] Though the verse says “man shall not see me and live,” we can interpret this metaphorically; for, of the four that entered to see God’s face, only one actually died physically. Ben Zoma went crazy and Aher became an apostate – both states that could be considered as not being alive in the fullest sense of the term (see Becker, p. 57). It could be argued that Rabbi Akiva, too, did not continue to live as a regular mortal, for, as will be shown herein, he lost a part of his humanity.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at http://www.divreinavon.com