The Golden Calf: Man Cannot See Me and Live
What is God?
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The Golden Calf is one of those utterly bizarre scenes out of the Bible that just defy all expectations and cause the reader to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. This was flat out idolatry, the exact thing that had been so explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments. This was a violation of the core of the covenant. This was having another god, and a cow to boot. How low can things get?
The Golden Calf debacle itself seems to have been the result of a certain amount of false expectations, a lack of patience, and a basic need of people to feel grounded in some familiar territory. Out of nowhere the Torah states that ‘The people saw that Moshe delayed in descending from the mountain, and they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Get up and make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt , we don’t know what became of him”’ (32:1). Next, Aaron seems to going right along with their demand, collecting jewelry, melting it, and fashioning it into a calf, to the popular declaration of ‘These are your gods, Israel, who took you up from the land of Egypt’ (32:4). It went downhill from there.
Hashem tells Moshe that he must get down off his perch on top of the mountain and deal with the on-the-ground problem. After interceding with Hashem’s wrath and saving the nation from imminent destruction, he descends with the tablets. Upon witnessing the scene before him he smashes the tablets in anger, grinds up the pieces, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink the concoction. After a little battle between the good guys and the bad guys, Moshe ascends again to intercede one more time to try to score some atonement for his people. Its touch and go for a while, but eventually a kind of compromise is reached. Moshe takes on a somewhat isolated status, pitching his tent off in the distance where it serves as a place of communion between him and Hashem. His relationship with Hashem, somewhat ironically, seems to have grown deeper and more intimate.
In the aftermath Moshe asks for what appears to be a personal request. Curiously, he requests, ‘Show me please, Your glory’ (33:18). What this means is left absolutely unclear. But the response is equally vague: ‘He said, “I will pass all of My goodness in front of you, and I will call out in the name of Hashem before you, and I will show favor to those that I will favor, and I will show mercy to those I will have mercy on”. And He said: “You cannot see My face, for man cannot see Me and live”. And Hashem said: “Look, there is (a) place with me and you shall stand on the rock. And as My glory passes I will place you in the cleft of the rock and I will shield you with My palms until I pass. And I will remove My palms and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen”’ (33:19-23).
What on earth is this talking about? How did this make it into the Bible? How does all this follow from the plummet of the Golden Calf? ‘Your glory’, ‘all of My goodness’, ‘My palms’, ‘My back’, ‘My face’ – what does all this mean? What did Moshe want to see? Who is it that responds with that business of calling out in the name of Hashem? Who then tells him that his request cannot be granted? Why does Hashem then instruct him on how he can see at least a part of what he hopes to see but not all? Finally, what is this weird phrase about ‘(a) place is with me’? How can (a) place be with anyone, even with God? We need some help with this one.
This scene, like Adam and Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden, screams metaphor. Even in Biblical times God did not have a back, or palms, or a face. God did have ‘goodness’ and ‘glory’, but these terms also need explaining. So let’s start with the easy ones, like glory. This is a standard Biblical God-related term. How did Moshe expect to see God’s glory? How would he know it if he saw it? Why, in the end, couldn’t he see it in all its glory?
Biblical glory is God revealed to the world. It may be some private revelation to the mind of one individual or a grand revelation to the entire human race. It may take the form of a stunning natural phenomenon, like a rainbow. It may be evident in an event, like the splitting of the sea or the burning of the bush or the trembling of the mountain. It may be present in a moment of creation, like in the inspired thoughts of a human being. It can be everywhere in creation at once, or at one time and place to the exclusion of all others.
But there is a problem here. If seeing God’s glory is as simple as taking a quick look at a rainbow then why was his request only granted partially? For that matter, why did he have to request it in the first place? Perhaps there is more to this glory thing than meets the eye. Moshe, perhaps, did not want to see just garden variety glory. All those things listed above are God within something else. They are truly amazing visions, of that we can be sure. But they are still God embedded in a creation. Moshe wanted to see more than this. Or perhaps, he wanted to see less than this.
There are four distinct ways of viewing the Creator-creation interaction in reality. Three are very natural and intuitive. They are atheism (God does not exist so there is no interaction), deism (God created everything and lets it run by itself), and theism (God continues to intervene in creation). But there is also a fourth way. This is the subtlest of them all, but in an ironic twist, also the simplest. It is difficult to state it in straight language because it is so counterintuitive. This fourth way denies the reality of the creation. There is just God. The creation, as important and as personal as it may be, is just a grand illusion when stacked up against the ultimate reality. This is pure mysticism in its most unadulterated and naked form. It strikes us, at least initially, as absolutely wrong.
The reality of God is not like the reality of anything else. While God's existence is absolute, the reality of everything else is not so ironclad. At the end of the day, what really is our existence? All we can really know about it is that we do exist. But what is that? Isn’t it possible that our very existence is nothing more than a thought in God’s mind? It may be a very long thought, and hopefully a very deep thought, but a thought it remains. This is the fourth way. It is all God. It is all God’s glory.
This is what Moshe wanted to see, the unadulterated glory of God - unadulterated by the gleam of creation that tends to blind us into thinking that what we are seeing is the true reality and not a cleverly disguised veil for God. Moshe wanted to remove the veil. He was answered in distinct statements that seem to be anonymous words of response. Who said these anonymous words? It doesn’t seem like it was Hashem because Hashem is mentioned in the third statement (v.22) only. The first anonymous statement instructs Moshe that ‘I will pass all of My goodness in front of you, and I will call out in the name of Hashem before you’. Who’s goodness? What goodness? Who calls out in the name of Hashem? Is it Hashem calling out in the name of Hashem? Perhaps, and this is a big perhaps, it is this unadulterated, unnamed, anonymous image of God who will pass all the goodness and glory of creation before Moshe and call out through the well known image of Hashem.
The second anonymous statement clarifies to Moshe that ‘You cannot see My presence, for man cannot see Me and live’. That ‘face’, that ‘presence’, is this very same unadulterated, unnamed, anonymous image of God. It cannot be seen by a man because that man lives as a creation. That image can only be seen when the whole creation thing is exposed for the illusion that it really is. As long as we maintain our independent reality - as long we stubbornly believe that we truly exist in some level that parallel’s God’s existence, we cannot hope to see this image of God. We are stuck in an endless loop, maintaining a fundamental belief in ourselves that prevents us from seeing the unnamed essence of God.
The third statement is back to Hashem as the verse clearly states. Moshe would be placed inside a cleft and shielded from the true essence of God, but allowed to see God’s veil in all its glory. God’s ‘palms’ hint at the veiled nature of everything that can only be partially revealed and even under those limited circumstance only at select moments. Moshe would be put in a special ‘place’ and from ‘there’ he would see whatever it is that he would see. This ‘place’ is ‘with’ Hashem in the sense that Hashem manipulates that dimension of reality to either reveal or conceal the godliness that lies within creation. But he was unable to see the unnamed image, for no person can see that and still exist as creation.
Perceiving the Image
This image is a tough one to get. As described above, it is really impossible to get. So what are we supposed to do with it if it’s impossible to access? Well we do have an imagination. Let's run with it.
Don’t worry about imaging God like Moshe tried to do. Try something else. Creation is an illusion. The only true reality is the inaccessible Creator. Try focusing on your own non-being. It won’t be easy at first, but in the end, it’s doable. It requires pretty intense sustained concentration with no interruptions. The focus is on increasingly sensing that you are only a thought in the mind of your Creator. Try using your own thoughts as props. Try creating your own beings and have them identify you as their creator. You are god to them. Watch them struggle with their own non-being. If necessary, enter your imagination and instruct them how to do this.
When you’ve got them convinced, start pulling out of your own creation and start seeing yourself in their place. Visualize yourself as a creation in the mind of your Creator. You only exist because you have been thought up. You only exist because your Creator enables your existence. Let this thought meander around, going in whatever direction it takes you. This is not intellectual thinking - it is the imagination doing its thing. Let it imagine your own non-being, your own reality as only a thought in the mind of what we could call God. At this point, try, impossible as it may be, to enter the mind of God and to see those creations just as you did with your own creations. It should be impossible. It is an inaccessible image because of the limitations of the created nature of the mind . But who really knows?
This image is spirituality at its peak. It simply is. Is it a real image or is it purely imaginary? Or, are those two possibilities not mutually exclusive?
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