After the travesty of the Golden Calf, Moshe manages to save the Israelites from God’s anger. But he wants more. He wants God’s immediate presence in the Israelite camp. He wants to know how God plans to interact with Israel from this day forward; and, for that matter, how God will interact with him.
God promises to stay plenty close and connected, “But…you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live…you will see My back; but My face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:21, 23). In this scene, we have powerful imagery to describe a close encounter with God, but it leaves us disappointed. So close, yet so far, does Moshe come to making the ultimate connection.
The rabbis understood that close usually counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades, so they made Moshe’s sight of God’s back more than a mere consolation prize. “Said Rav Hana bar Bizna in the name of Rabbi Shimon: this teaches us that the Holy Blessed One showed Moshe a tefillin knot” (Bavli Berakhot 7a). This refers to the knot in the back of Tefillin shel Rosh, the tefillin worn on the head.
Clearly, Rabbi Shimon believed in a God who wears tefillin. Why does he employ this metaphor? What is the Torah saying about God? What does Rabbi Shimon’s explanation do in response? These, and other God questions, on Shabbat morning!
Rabbi David Wise