“You will see My back but My face shall not be seen.”
This verse is spoken by Gd to Moses after Moses begs Gd to “show me Your glory!” Moses desperately wants to see Gd, but all he gets is Gd’s back.
There are moments in our lives when we would be happy to simply get a glimpse of Gd’s back. At least this glimpse would be proof that indeed Gd exists. At the most challenging moments in our lives, being able to experience Gd would be incredibly comforting. All too often, at these challenging moments, we wonder where Gd is.
I have experienced my share of challenging moment. In January, 1994, I was living in the San Fernando Valley when the 6.7 Northridge earthquake struck. I lost my apartment and had to relocate with what I could salvage from my home. As most of you know, I was living in New York on 9/11. I saw one of the planes moments before it struck the World Trade Center. I was one of the first clergy to enter the burn unit at Cornell Medical Center – the unit that received the handful of severely injured survivors who were pulled from the World Trade Center. I, like many of you, lived through the damaging effects of Hurricane Wilma. And, of course, as a rabbi, I have sat with many families after the loss of a loved one has left them in shock.
During all of these traumatic moments, I found myself asking “why?”, searching for answers and looking for Gd. There are no good answers that explain any tragedy. And finding Gd during the darkest hours is often a futile, frustrating effort. What I have come to understand, however, is that this effort becomes less challenging the farther away from the event you get.
While I will never forget the feeling of hopelessness I had while walking the streets of New York the week after 9/11, the images of brave rescue workers, determined health care professionals, and flag filled neighborhoods are etched into my mind forever. In the same way, while the negative memories of the Northridge earthquake and Hurricane Wilma will never go away, these negative memories now blend with the beautiful memories of caring neighbors, the power of community and the joy of the electricity coming back on. And, the darkest moments in our synagogue’s life are forever countered by the power of memory and shivah minyans and, of course, the incredible strength that those left behind have to turn tragedy and heartbreak into blessing.
My experiences have taught me that while we usually can’t find Gd during a crisis, time empowers us to discover that Gd was indeed with us all along. This is what the Torah is teaching us by explaining that Moses was only able to see Gd’s back. We are no different than Moses. There are times that we can only appreciate Gd’s presence after it has passed us by. Gd is with us during the tragic moments – present in the strength of individuals, the power of community and the human determination to survive. It is only when get through the darkness that we can look behind us and realize that we were in the presence of Gd all along. At the time, when Gd’s face was before us, we were not able to realize what we were looking at. Thank goodness we have the gift of memory that enable us to appreciate Gd’s back.