By Rabbi Daniel Plotkin
Usually on Passover we ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, we may ask, “Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?” Our holiday of liberation is celebrated as we sit in our homes. Our holiday, on which more Jewish families gather for the purpose of Jewish practice than any other day, is one on which we gather online. The holiday on which we celebrate protections from plagues finds us in a state of uncertainty due to a modern plague.
But our current situation gives us new insight to the Torah portion read on the Shabbat of Passover. The main arc of this Torah portion — a piece of the weekly parshah Ki Tisa — is Moses dealing with the aftermath of the Golden Calf and the need to carve a new set of tablets.
Moses feels alone, betrayed by the people and even distant from God. In a remarkably detailed conversation between God and Moses, Moses asks to see God’s face or presence (depending on how one chooses to translate). God replies that Moses, and no person, can directly see God’s face and live, but that God will cause divine goodness to pass before Moses.
After Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai, God hides Moses in a cleft of the rock as God’s presence sweeps through the valley below, and God allows Moses to see God’s “back.”
Rejecting the idea that God has any physical characteristics, our ancient rabbis describe this as Moses being able to see in a very clear way the impact that God’s presence has on the world. Therefore, Moses responds to this sight with a recitation of God’s qualities, part of which we repeat three times on the festival days before removing the Torah.
In our current situation, it is easy to feel alone, to feel that the presence of God has left this world. That feeling in times of crisis is so natural, that even Moses struggled with it.
Having doubt is not a bad thing; it is a normal and positive check on our faith. Certainty about things that cannot be fully known is dangerous, and doubt protects us and gives us a way to navigate just about any situation.
Moses, in his moment of crisis, needed reassurance. We need that as well. But to see the evidence of God’s presence in the world, we do not need to climb a mountain. We see it in he bravery of our health care professionals and others still performing essential jobs. We see it in acts of kindness: people taking care of neighbors, business taking care of employees even if it would be easier just to furlough them, communities coming together in new ways.
This is our reassurance, our viewing of God’s back. Our situation will pass at some point, but these acts of kindness will remain, resulting in a more merciful and more just world. W
Rabbi Daniel Plotkin is rabbi-educator for Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.