Tactile Transcendence

Research has shown that tactile experiences create lasting impressions. By holding something and interacting with it we take the abstract and make it concrete. In subtle ways Judaism understands this. As Ben Bag-Bag says in Mishna Avot:

 הפך בה והפך בה, דכלא בה

Turn it and turn it for everything is in it

In order to “turn it” we need to make the esoteric real – it needs to have a tactile dimension that allows us to engage in further reflection and depth. 

As an educator I spend time thinking about how information is transmitted – what are effective ways to craft a lecture that speaks to different types of learners. This has become even more relevant as I navigate how to be a good parent. 

The holiday of Sukkot is a festival filled with tactile experiences. Growing up, my father would make a רגל – a pilgrimage with my brother and me to Canal Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to pick lulavim and etrogim for our synagogue. We would spend hours checking palm fronds, inspecting willow branches, smelling myrtle, and scrutinizing etrogim. Trekking to find one’s own lulav brought new meaning to the pasuk: 

ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון פרי עץ הדר כפת תמרים וענף עץ עבת וערבי נחל ושמחתם לפני ה׳ אל–הכם–שבעת ימים

And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the resplendent tree; bounded palm fronds, and branches of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you (collectively) shall rejoice before the LORD your God — seven days.

For some, climbing ladders, banging hammers, and employing the use of other tools to construct a sukkah makes it a tactile holiday. And for others, the act of eating in a sukkah, being pushed out of our homes into this temporary dwelling makes the holiday move from conceptual to physical. Not only do we learn by doing, we create lasting experiences by doing. When we mesh the physical, religious, and intellectual we begin to create transformative experiences. The Rabbis understood this and sought to bring a physical dimension to the transcendent when they arranged the Torah reading for Shabbat chol haMoed

The Torah reading begins with an exasperated Moshe, who descended Mt. Sinai with the לוחות- Tablets and smashed them on the ground when he finds the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. Moshe, in need of חיזוק – encouragement asks to see God’s face. Ultimately, this is not possible fore, לא יראני האדם וחי – mankind cannot see Me and live. Instead, God offers for Moshe to see the Holy One’s back. The narrative presents how Moshe is offered a second set of Tablets, then concludes with a recounting of the Biblical calendar – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 

Why begin with Moshe asking to see God’s face? The Rabbis could have selected one of the Biblical passages recounting the calendar without the need for a seemingly unconnected narrative. I believe that Rabbis were trying to create a tactile experience. They are trying to tie together Moshe’s moment of Divine intimacy with the essence of the Three Festivals.   

In the musaf Amidah for the Festivals we quote a pasuk from דברים – Deuteronomy:

שלוש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני ה׳ אל–היך במקום אשר יבחר בחג המצות ובחג השבעות ובחג הסכות

Three times during the year the whole of your people will appear before the Lord your God in the place that will be chosen – during the on the feast of unleavened bread, and on the feast of weeks, and on the feast of tabernacles.

Three times a year we are to יראה… את פני ה׳ אל–היך – appear before the Lord our God. If the text were simply trying to convey the notion of standing “before” – as is “in front of”- the Torah might have used the word לפני. Instead, the Rabbi understood פני to be conveying a deeper meaning. פני does not simply mean “to stand before” – it is suggesting that we are coming before the Face of the Lord. 

The literary connection is subtle, but quite ingenious – the Rabbis used Moshe’s moment of seeing the Divine Presences as a template for us to imagine what it means to יראה… את פני ה׳ אל–היך – appear before the Face of the Lord. 

If Moshe could not see God’s face, all the more so, none of us would never reach such levels. But, the Rabbis saw a way to give us a tactile point of entry – a way to conjure in our minds what it might be like to stand in God’s Presence.

Viewed from this perspective, the Torah reading for Shabbat chol haMoed is not an esoteric, odd, disjointed narrative, but instead a coherent message trying to transmit an experience. The Rabbis sought to make it tactile. They took the the abstract notion of “appearing before God” and gave each of us a model for how to engage with and reflect upon these words and moments.   

לא יראני האדם וחי – Mankind cannot see My face and live, but Moshe came the closest. Moshe’s experience then, can serve as a model for how we can fulfill our obligation to appear before the Face of the Lord on our most joyous of days. 

About the Author
Jonathan S. Hack received his Ph.D. in political science from The George Washington University and rabbinical ordination privately in Israel. He is a Program Officer for the Anxieties of Democracy program at the Social Science Research Council in New York.
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