Rav Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel when it was still under the British mandate. His ideas are the basis of Religious Zionist thought and he is known until this day as an influential thinker and scholar whose works are shared and learnt extensively in and beyond the Religious Zionist Jewish World.
Rav Kook has an interesting take on one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible. After the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf, Moses begs on their behalf for their forgiveness. When G-d heeds his cry, Moses decided to grasp the moment and asked to view G-d’s Glory. G-d’s answer is that this is simply impossible. A mortal being cannot see G-d and survive the experience. However, G-d did agree to pass by and to protect Moses as He did so.
The source in Exodus quotes G-d as saying, “You will then have a vision of My back. My face, however, will not be seen.” (33:17-23). An obvious problem is the anthropomorphic imagery used here. G-d is body-less. So, what did G-d mean by “back” and “face” in this instance?
The Talmud commentates on this exchange yet seems to only further our confusion. Rabbi Shimon Hasida explains in Berachot 7a that G-d’s “back” was actually the knot in G-d’s Tefillin Shel Rosh. What is Rabbi Shimon Hasida referring to?
Rav Kook first explains that there are two levels of knowledge in this world. There is full knowledge of an object, an accurate understanding of its entirety. There is also limited knowledge due to our limited capabilities. When it comes to abstract concepts, especially regarding G-d and His nature our knowledge is often the latter. The Torah is G-d’s way of allowing us to “know” Him as much as is intellectually possible with our finite minds. When G-d said to Moses that no human can see Him and live He was referring to the fact that human beings can never fully comprehend G-d’s true nature.
Regarding the metaphor of G-d’s Tefillin, the Tefillin contain verses referring to G-d’s being, a way for us to understand Him. However, it is simultaneously beyond our comprehension. The knot of the Tefillin symbolizes something physical that we can grasp on to, a level of understanding that allows for the finite nature of our minds.
The “face” and “back” of G-d represent the two kinds of knowledge. True knowledge of G-d is His “face”. The Hebrew word for “face” is “panim” which is related to the word “p’nim”- “inner essence”. G-d’s “back”, on the other hand, refers to limited understanding of G-d. Moses was allowed access to this partial understanding of G-d.
This message is one that can truly serve as a constant reminder to men and women, Tefillin-wearers and non-Tefillin-wearers alike. In this world, even those who define themselves as “believers” often have a hard time digesting the things that go on around us. If we manage to understand that even our “knowledge”of G-d is but a fraction of Him we would, perhaps, find it easier to understand the seemingly illogical and disheartening events that happen. Our lives in this world are but a section of a much larger picture and that bigger picture is not something that can be fathomed down here. In the meantime, we can strive to understand G-d’s doings as best we can and to accept with love that simply, some things we will never understand.
Adapted from http://www.ravkooktorah.org/KITISA61.htm
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