Judaism: The Top of the Mountain
Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
The view from the top of the mountain is always incomparable. That’s why every culture and every religion uses the image of the mountain to convey so many powerful messages. However, in Judaism, the mountain is something both concrete and symbolic.
Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) ascended Mount Sinai as Hashem spoke to us from the top of the mountain. After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe again ascended the mountain to plead with Hashem to forgive Bnei Yisroel. It is during this second of Moshe’s three ascents that he has the famous dialogue with Hakodosh Boruch Hu (G-d). “Show me now Your glory,” asks Moshe. Hashem responds cryptically, “I shall make all My goodness pass before you… You shall not be able to see My face, for no man can see My face and live… Behold, there is a place near Me; You may stand on the rock… When My glory passes by… you will see my back, but My face you may not be seen.”
What was it that Moshe now wanted to see? Surely G-d’s glory had been revealed during the ten plagues as well as during the splitting of the sea. What was Moshe now requesting additionally? Most of our commentators interpret Moshe’s request as the one so many of us often wrestle with: Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Basically, Moshe was asking Hashem to reveal to him His full plan and blueprint of the world so that, as the "Ohr Doniel" says, I will know absolutely that it is not random.
We are left with trying to understand the significance of G-d’s response. Certainly we can understand G-d’s response that no one “can see My face and live;” What was Hashem willing to show Moshe by putting Moshe on the rock beside Him and showing Moshe his back after He passed and not showing Moshe His face? How are we to understand this and integrate the message into our own lives?
Rabbi Munk cites the Rambam tin explaining that we can never understand G-d’s essence, but through His thirteen attributes, among the ways in which Hashem interacts with the world, we can get some idea of Hashem. By telling Moshe to come up on the rock, says Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Hashem was giving Moshe a new perspective on the world and the activities below. Hashem is looking from even greater heights, but on top of this mountain, Moshe would be closer to Hashem and see the world from a perspective closer to Hashem’s perspective. One can see the interconnectedness of many things when one is looking down from a high perch than when one is surrounded by the events and people of the moment.
Hashem promised Moshe that he would be able to see His back, but he would not see His face. Rabbi Pincus, the Tiferes Shimshon, explains the difference in perception of seeing someone face to face versus seeing someone from the back. When we see someone from the back we can probably discern who they are from their general stance or other identifying features. But we cannot discern their essence, what they are thinking or feeling at the moment from the back. That we can only gather by seeing their face. In the same way, explains Rabbi Pincus, we cannot get to the inner essence of Hashem but only get a general impression of Him through observation of His attributes.
Nevertheless, says Rabbi Munk, we have a rock upon which to stand, the foundation of our faith. If we are firm as a rock in our relationship with Hashem, we will understand that G-d’s presence is manifest in the world even when we cannot see it or understand it.
We can only understand the happenings of the world in retrospect, sometimes long after something happens, acharai. We are living in a narrow slice and space of eternity, and our understanding is analogous to reading one chapter in the middle of a long book, says the Chatam Sofer. Only G-d has the whole book and understands how all the chapters are interrelated.
What we need, says Rabbi Kofman in "Mishchat Shemen", is to have the simple faith that nothing is accidental or coincidental, that Hashem has set the goal and arranged everything to meet that final goal. As the Chofetz Chaim points out, the one who has faith has no questions, but for the one who has no faith, no answers will suffice. Only when we leave this world of illusion and our souls rise to the heavens will we be able to look down upon this world and have the answers to those questions.
If we had the perspective from the top of the rock, we would recognize in each of our challenges a vehicle for greater growth. When we have faith that someday in hindsight, acharai, we will understand the purpose of our challenges, we bring sweetness into our lives as we accept and rise to those challenges, says Rabbi Avigdor Miller citing disciples of the Baal Shem Tov.
Rabbi Kofman continues by offering some guidelines in building this faith and strengthening our relationship with our Creator. There are myriad ways Hashem shows His love for us throughout every day. Find and relish those little kisses, store them in your memory bank, so that when you face a difficult time, you can make a withdrawal from that account and retain your faith. After all, as Rashi says, Hashem showed Moshe the knot of the tefillin at the back of His head. Rabbi Eliezer Kahan explains this to mean that Hashem feels our pain in His head and in His arm opposite His heart, the places where the tefillin are placed. He feels our pain even when we have sinned. The tefillin binds Hashem to us.
With this faith, we can turn the darkness of night into bright day, as Hashem did for us upon our exodus from Egypt. As the Psalm says, “Velylah kayom yair – and night will light up like day.” The numerical equivalent of lylah is 75, while the numerical equivalent of kayom is 76. There is a difference of only one between day and night. Faith in the One, in G-d’s providence can provide light even when surrounded by darkness. This is the faith we must teach our children so that they will have a rock and fortress in times of trouble, so they will count on Hashem’s love to sustain them in their darkest times.
Along with always searching for the positive in our own lives, says the "Shemen Hamishcha", we must also search for the good in everyone else, even in the Jew who seems so far removed from his roots. Rabbi Friefeld discusses a case where someone complained of having no friends and having poor relationships. Rabbi Freifeld understood that this man always found fault with others, and was therefore prone to malice and backbiting. He could change his relationships with others by being less judgmental, by changing his perspective and trying to see things from their point of view and understanding the complexities of someone else’s life.
If we get into that same habit, we are more likely to accept that Hashem’s perspective is decidedly different from ours, that the situation is more complex than we can fathom, and we will be able to accept His decisions even if we don’t understand them.
Let us return to trying to see and understand Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Again, we cannot comprehend His essence, but we understand much about Him through the evidence He leaves behind, that which is achorai, says Rabbi Bloch, the Telse Rosh Yeshiva, in "Shiurei Das". (To me, this seems similar to scientists discerning the existence of comets from observing their orbits, or the evidence of someone’s previous visit by the fragrance she left behind.) We can find evidence of Hashem’s presence everywhere we choose to search for it in the world. This is our mission in life, for the more we reveal evidence of His presence in the world, the closer our relationship with Him becomes, and the is tighter our circle around Him, our center. We can’t see His face, but we can follow His light.
Rabbi Frand cites the Brisker Rav who taught a businessman that he is to define himself not by what he does for a living but by his essence as a Jew. As the prophet Jonah answered the sailors who were trying to ascertain why he was the cause of the violent storm affecting them, we too must know that “I am a Jew, and I fear the Lord.” All else is secondary and must fit into the circle of my relationship with my Creator, not that my G-d must fit into this very large circle full of all kinds of extraneous matter.
As Jonah did, our lives must also revolve first around the rock of our simple faith in Hashem. Then we will have the ability to recognize His presence not only in retrospect, but also in every facet of our lives, and we will follow Him as the light leading the way along our path of life. We will be willing to wait for the answers to our questions until the time that our souls return to the vantage point of the rock on high.
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein