Back to the Future – in the Parasha and at the Protests (13)
This is my thirteenth consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
The Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Ha’moed Pesach (Exodus 33:12-34:26) includes what in modern times — ancient commentaries seem to read it differently — has almost universally been understood as God’s promise to show Moses his back.
And the LORD said, ‘See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock, and as My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you will see My back (Exod 33:21-23).
This is the context. Moses asked God who will accompany him as he leads the Israelites to the Promised Land. Not coincidentally, Joshua, who will ultimately lead the people into Canaan after Moses’ death, had been mentioned in the preceding verse (Exod 33:11). But – a case of succession anxiety? – Joshua is not the answer Moses is looking for. He wants to be certain that God himself will be with them.
God assures Moses that he will indeed be with the Israelites when they enter the land, but Moses is not satisfied. He wants a sign, some kind of guarantee. He asks God to let him see his ka’vod, ‘glory’ or, according to some translators, ‘presence’.
God’s response is surprising. He tells Moses that he cannot see his face, because ‘no man may see me and live’, but he can see his back. The surprise is that the same verse that mentioned Joshua (v. 11) also reported that ‘The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another’. Hadn’t Moses already seen God’s face?
At one level, ‘face’ should be taken literally, or at least as literally as it can be when God is the subject. At another level, it’s a wordplay. The Hebrew word for ‘face’, panim, shares a root with the word meaning ‘in front of’, a direction in space, and ‘before’, a direction in time.
Similarly, the Hebrew word for ‘back’, achor, shares a root with a word meaning ‘behind’, a direction in space, and ‘after’ or ‘later’, a direction in time. God isn’t telling Moses that he can see his back, or what’s physically ‘behind’ God, another possible meaning of the Hebrew. He’s telling Moses that he will show him what will come ‘after’ or ‘later’ – namely, the future. In other words, God is responding to Moses’ original request to know what will be.
This reading is reflected in the well-known talmudic story about Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai after the Golden Calf to get the second set of commandments – the very ascent we’re reading about. In the talmudic story — which is also about succession — God tells Moses about a man called Rabbi Akiva who will in future derive ‘heaps and heaps of laws’ from the Torah God is giving to Moses. Show him to me, pleads Moses. Turn backwards, replies God.
Moses turns backwards and is transported into the future, where he sees Rabbi Akiva first teaching and then martyred in Roman Palestine (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b). Just as in the Torah, a spatial direction, backwards, becomes a temporal direction, the future.
Yes, it seems counter-intuitive to imagine that the is future behind us, but that’s how it was perceived in some ancient societies. The past must be in front of us because we can see it, they reasoned, and the future must be behind us because we can’t see it. Even today, our sense of space and time is complex in this regard. We look ahead to the future, but we also envisage our successors – a theme of both the biblical and the talmudic narrative – coming up behind us.
When the protests first began, the future was not much in evidence, except in a looming awareness of the terrifying consequences of the reforms. It was all about stopping the legislation. But gradually, the future is shifting into focus – at the demonstrations themselves, where speakers are imagining what Israel could in an ideal world become if the reforms are stopped, and at the breathtaking number and range of Zoom lectures, discussions, and even invitations to sit one on one with someone on ‘the other side’, offered via the myriad protest WhatsApp groups. Not a return to the past, but back to the future.
As many are discussing, Israel’s future must hold robust education on democracy. A shocking number of Israelis, it turned out, falsely equated democracy with majority rule. A government gets elected and does what it wants. Most of us need to learn a lot more about democracy.
Israel’s future must hold a serious reckoning over equality. Decades of inequality between Sephardim and Ashkenazim must end. Grossly unequal contributions to the state by Haredi versus non-Haredi citizens must end. Inequality between Jews and Arabs must end. And so must gender inequality in the public sphere.
Israel’s future must, somehow, hold the end of the Occupation.
Israel’s future must hold legislative reform. Even if, as I pray it will be, the opposition is successful this time, we’ve learned that the Supreme Court was not strong enough to withstand a coup. There must be other vehicles in addition for checks and balances.
Israel’s future must hold new leaders who are honest and good and have the interests of the entire country and all its citizens at heart. And new leaders are indeed emerging.
And in the meantime, Israel’s future must hold demonstrations. It’s not too late to join them.
[This post was based on my 2008 article, God’s Back. What did Moses see on Sinai]