The reading for Shabbat Chol HaMoed, the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Pesach (and Sukkot), describes one of the more exciting moments in Torah: the closest encounter any human has with God.
Following the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ advocacy for the people, he makes a personal request. He asks to see God. This is somewhat surprising, as we have just been told that God, in the form of a cloud, regularly meets with Moses “face to face” in the Tent of Meeting. But this is apparently not enough, or not the real deal. Moses ups the ante and requests to see God’s kavod, a term usually translated as “honor,” but in this context, clearly refers to God’s physical being.
Impossible, retorts God, “Humans may not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This lesson is learned later by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, after they bring an unauthorized sacrifice in the Tent of Meeting. Explaining their resulting death, God says, “Through those close to me, I am sanctified” (Leviticus 10:3), intimating that those who get too close to the Holy One are no longer for this world.
But the danger does not deter Moses. It is easy to understand why. This is the apogee of the spiritual quest: to be close with the Source of all.
Contrast this with the great distance between the Israelites and God during the Golden Calf episode. God is absent; the relationship with the people is broken by their sin. Afterward, the relationship is renewed but reflects the distance. The stern, punishing Judge exacts a terrible price for idolatry and disobedience (Exodus 32:35).
In this context, Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai is especially instructive. God agrees to Moses’ request, and after Moses climbs the mountain, God places him in the cleft of the rock. There he is protected from direct contact with God’s “face” or front as God passes by, but Moses is able to see God’s “acher,” apparently God’s back (there are numerous interpretations).
That is as close as any human can be to God’s direct, unmediated presence. The message is clear. There are limits to the encounter with God. There are limits to our understanding. The “face” of God remains a mystery.
Still, not all is mystery. God communicates with humans. The revelation on Sinai shows that God’s ways can be known.
The gap between two humans in a relationship can be measured by physical proximity, and it can also be measured by the emotions and behaviors in a relationship — expanded by hatred and jealousy, or closed through love and respect.
So, too, in the relationship with God. In the next chapter, the question of how to maintain the proper distance with God is fleshed out in non-physical terms: Eschew other gods, forsake idols, bring first fruits, appear before God three times a year (a reference to later times when Israelites went up to Jerusalem on the pilgrimage festivals) and, during Passover, refrain from leavened foods (Exodus 34:10-26).
Perhaps this is why we read of Moses’ encounter with God on the Shabbat of Pesach. Chametz, the yeast, the defining characteristic of that which we are forbidden to eat on Passover, puffs up the dough. It is likened in our sources to an unhealthy, infatuated-with-oneself ego, the urge that leads people to overreach, even if reaching for the holy.
Chametz also symbolizes human creativity. While God is responsible for wheat, we humans make bread. We are so successful in manipulating our world, we might think that humans can truly be independent and in control. But once a year (and every Shabbat) we accept God’s limits on our industry, reminding ourselves that we can easily forget God’s role and become obsessed with our part of the creative process and the illusion of our power.
The proper relationship with God — close but not too close — is the fruit of what the Torah later calls Moses’ greatest virtue: humility.
On the mountain, when Moses is near, yet far enough away to be protected in the cleft of the rock, God proclaims what we humans can know: God’s attributes and God’s ways, “… compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity … (Exodus 34:6-7).”
Here we do not see the harsh Judge, but the Compassionate Leader or Parent. As God describes it, when we are close but not too close, “I will make kol tuvi, all My goodness, pass over you” (Exodus 33:19).