By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Ki Tisa
Many verses in the Chumash, even stories, appear incomplete and difficult to understand. Sometimes there are gaps, grammatical peculiarities, code words and contradictions which need to be elucidated in order to get a complete picture.
Rabbenu Solomon Yitzchaki (or simply Rashi) has a masterful biblical commentary — affectionately termed “the wine of Torah” — which focuses on the surface meaning. His task is to make the passages read smoothly, so that even a beginner can uncover a flowing narrative. As Rashi himself declares in some of his notes, “there are many profound explanations, and our Sages have already arranged them in their proper order…but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture.”
This week, in one of the most dramatic biblical scenes, Moses seizes an auspicious moment and puts forth a request to G-d, “Show me your glory!” To which G-d answers, “You will not be able to see my face, for no man shall see me and live… you will see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
“G-d’s glory,” his “back” and “face” are clear metaphors referencing levels in divine revelation or human understanding.
A strange comment
On the words, “you will see my back,” Rashi provides an interesting clarification: “he showed him the kesher (knot) of the tefillin.” Later scholars ask: What difficulty or ambiguity in the verses prompts Rashi to explain the “back” as referring to the knot of tefillin?
The natural reaction is that Rashi is bothered by the anthropomorphism of “back,” so he feels compelled to emphasize the fundamental principle in Judaism — G-d is removed from all form. Yet the Torah is full of anthropomorphisms which Rashi never feels the need to explain. In fact, within this very exchange, the word “face” is used, and Rashi remains silent. (Furthermore, if indeed his intention was to demonstrate that physical form cannot apply to G-d, providing an analogy of the tefillin only makes matters worse.)
So, what was Rashi trying to resolve with this comment?
A possible answer can be found when looking more closely at the verses leading up to this phrase. After Moses’ request, there appears to be a slight digression as G-d tells Moses, “I will let all my goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor when I wish to favor, and I will have compassion…”
To bring these ambiguous references of goodness and compassion to light — what does all this have to do with Moses’ request to see glory — Rashi decodes each phrase. Plugging in this commentary provides the reader with a fascinating scene, a dialogue that would have been impossible to decipher without it.
Reduced glory, special
prayers and imagery
In short, Moses will eventually be shown some level of “glory,” while he is taught “the order of prayer” while placed in the cleft of a rock. “Proclaiming the name of the Lord” conveys the procedure for begging for compassion, praying with the specific 13 attributes of mercy. Moses can then instruct his people how to evoke compassion during moments of crises — for all generations. Finally, during this time, Moses will see the glory in the image of a figure wrapped in a tallit.
Now, once Rashi mentions being covered with a tallit in the earlier verse, the astute reader who is keeping track immediately wonders: What kind of glory does this plain white garment display? And here is where his precise answer comes into play: The encompassing cloth is lowered to uncover the knot of the tefillin — a more majestic garment — and this visualization is the suitable analogy for “seeing the back.”
Even a child is familiar with the daily sight of a congregation’s leader praying at the front of the room, facing the ark with his back to the audience, covered in a tallit. The black leather straps of the head tefillin form a crown, held together by the small daled-shaped knot which rests on the base of the skull. Lowering the tallit thus allows the viewer to gain a glimpse of this “tefillin crown.”
Even within the surface commentary, there are layers of meaning. The combination of these components, 1) granting the request to see glory — albeit a less potent vision — and 2) teaching the “order of prayer” in the form of 13 attributes of mercy, is not incidental. Rather, gazing at the tallit and the knot of the tefillin is an integral component to learning how to evoke divine mercy.
The mystical works explain that all sin — the reason for evoking the 13 attributes of mercy — stems from momentary forgetfulness; for if one remained conscious of the source, it would be impossible to stumble. In a similar vein, the Talmud states “there is no forgetfulness before the Throne of Glory.”
Since the beginning of time, as told in the very first section of the Torah, the two main tricks of the evil inclination (embodied in the snake) are: accentuating pleasure and concealing consequences. This reappears this week with the golden calf. The antidotes, therefore, are finding pleasure in things of eternal value, and increasing wisdom through study, which brings heightened perception and foresight. Similarly, memory is the purest antidote to spiritual slips and failure.
Possessing “good memory,” in this context, is not how much information someone can recall, but what information and images the person places at the forefront of the mind. That’s also why tallit and tefillin are mentioned in the above passage — two mitzvot specifically tied to memory: “You shall see them and remember” and they should be “a reminder between your eyes.” Just as teaching the 13 attributes of mercy rectifies sin, seeing the tallit or the tefillin hints at preventing the cause for sin (forgetfulness).
Uncovering the deeper symbolism of the tefillin, we can move to dissect the remaining word, the “knot” (literally, attachment), which is also more than a random technicality. In the Zohar’s commentary on this week’s parasha, we find another link between knots and memory: “Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Yossi used to make knots, so as not to forget the wisdom they had heard.”
While this relates a ritual of making material knots to serve as reminders, Jewish ethical works often use the metaphor of “tying a knot” as the recipe for fixing mistakes — strengthening or doubling down in areas of vulnerability through added attention. Put differently, all mental wounds involve a feeling of separateness from the source and from the true self — depression, frustration, addiction, worry, fear, confusion and so forth. The underlying remedy must involve maintaining a higher perspective through powerful attachment to the most sacred and enduring parts of life.
Uncovering a simple remark in a tiny commentary in this famous story can go a long way: Memory through sacred visualizations and strengthening connections both prevents and rectifies the biggest falls.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.