Seeing ‘God’s back’ is easy for those who know where to look


After the incident of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, Moses is shaken. While he has not lost his faith in God, he feels that he needs reassurance after the actions of the people who were supposed to be dedicated in a covenant to God. He asks to see God’s presence, and God says, yes, but Moses will only be permitted to see God’s “back”.

Many have commented on this idea of God’s back. Since we know that God does not have physical form, it is obviously a metaphor. Despite this some have suggested that Moses was permitted to see the knot on the tefillin that God wore. Others suggest that Moses was permitted to see the end of divine light of God.


It is the commentary of the 14th century scholar, Gersonidies that seems to get to the heart of the matter. He interprets God’s back as meaning, “the events that I leave in my wake.” That is to say Moses was made aware of the impact that God had on the world. This was, however, a power that Moses and all of the Israelites (in fact all of the world) already had. Moses, though, had seen too much evil in his encounter with the Israelites and the Golden Calf and needed reassurance.

We too have this ability to see how God interacts and affects the world, and we have the ability to add to that impact. As heirs to the teachings and knowledge of Moses, we can gain an understanding of what it is that God expects from us, especially in the way we treat each other. We can see the power of God every day when we see people helping others out of a sense of duty to God and humanity.

Religion has been blamed for much of what is bad in the world: war, ignorance and hatred. But that is a stereotype that is simply false. Those who use religion and the name of God for the sake of power and wealth are no more religious than those who accuse religion in general of these bad things.

Those of us who are truly religious see God’s back on a regular basis and we cause others to see it as well. We know that religion ultimately boils down to treating others with a sense of dignity and respect in order to lift their spirits and improve life for all people of the world. The particular rituals of individual religions are there as a way of supporting individuals in the ultimate religious task by providing structure and a sense of a community oriented to the same goal.

The deeds that we perform out of a sense of righteous duty to ourselves, to others and to God are our way of revealing God’s back each and every day. Perhaps it was because Moses was isolated from the people that he needed the special reassurance, but for those of us who live and work in our communities every day, we always have the opportunity to see God’s back, if we but open our eyes and hearts to look.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Congregation B’nai El, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.