God's Presence is on the Margins

This sheet on Exodus 33 was written by Jill Jacobs for 929 and can also be found here

The Yom Kippur confessional prayer begins, “We are no so brazen or stiff-necked to say to you, ‘We are righteous and have not sinned.’” This preamble is surprising: we could easily launch into the litany of sins without first noting our refusal to profess innocence.

Responding to this question, Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780-1845), a disciple of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, distinguishes between those who deny God altogether, and therefore “say that they are righteous and have not sinned at all, since they reject all of the commandments of the Torah” and those who “feel the deep pain of sin, such that we still ask for teshuvah and forgiveness,” and for whom hope remains. (Likkutei Halakhot Orach Chaim, Laws of Tachanun, Chapter 5:5)

No matter how severe human transgressions may be, those who are willing to do teshuvah, and to seek closeness with the Divine, always have the chance for a better future.

Thus, following the Israelites’ greatest act of rebellion to date—the sin of the golden calf—God responds with the most brutal of punishments: the absence of Godself from the community. In contrast to the posture of those who confess on Yom Kippur, the people here are so stiff-necked as to have denied God and the divine commandments.

“I will not go in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on your way.” (Exodus 33:3)

This decision aims to protect the people from divine anger. The commentator Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “If I dwell among you, the punishment for your sins will be greater.”

Even so, the total absence of God turns out to be a burden too difficult to bear. Just a chapter later, Moses begs, “If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people.” (Exodus 34:9) The risk of harsh punishment proves less frightening than the absence of the divine presence.

In the meantime, Moses discovers a way to maintain the people’s access to God:

Now Moses would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp. . . whoever sought the LORD would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp. (33:7)

The divine presence may not be readily visible among the people, but remains available on the margins, for those who seek it.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

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