If someone would have told you a year ago, “The following setbacks are going to happen to you in the coming year: you’ll lose your job, a close friend’s marriage is going to fall apart, a family-member will be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.” You would have said, “Please don’t let those things happen. I don’t want them to. I don’t know if I could handle it or even survive it if, God forbid, they did happen.” Yet, now a year later, such things have happened and you did survive. A question worth pondering is, “Whence came the resources that enabled you to endure these debilitating challenges — resources you didn’t believe you had in you — resources you may not actually have had until circumstances forced you to have to produce them?”
Such a question can only be answered personally. Some will answer: loyal friends and family made all the difference. Others may look to the invaluable support of therapists or spiritual guides. My answer is the invisible hand of God.
This is what God is alluding to in this week’s first portion of Torah which details the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. Sometimes the recovery from a relationship breakdown can result in newfound intimacy. This is what transpires when God reveals essential attributes to Moses, teaching him how to pray for forgiveness. This deeply personal Divine revelation concludes tellingly, “you’ll see My back (achorai), but My face may not be seen” (Ex. 33:23). What might God’s back look like? I believe it refers not only to something in physical space but also to moments in time. When we reflect upon the past which is behind us (achorai) we can detect fingertips of the invisible hand of God gently prodding us forward.
God neither seeks nor needs any credit. But we need to be empowered as change agents. Even as God’s back focuses on our past, it is more than ‘rearview mirror theology’. It also confers responsibility on us in the present and future. We don’t vicariously imagine that meeting today’s challenge is someone else’s job. Nor do we wait idly for some future transformation. Rather we get to work with resolve and resilience.
We are changed by what we do, not by what we receive. After glimpsing God’s back, Moses helps to prepare a second set of Tablets. Unlike with the first Tablets, this second set is a joint-venture with Moses hewing and God writing. To demonstrate how empowered action changes us, Moses’ face begins to glow (Ex. 34:30).
May we discern how others have had our backs as we have had theirs, and may such memories inspire us to make meaning today with our soothing words, works, and ways.