D’var Torah - Neighbor Night- February 18, 2011
Over the last three years, I have chosen a word from the weekly Torah reading on which to focus for a congregational discussion of its meaning. The word that I chose this week, KAVOD, is not in the sec- tion from which I will be reading tonight from the Torah, but in the verses just preceding it. KAVOD is a word that is usually translated as glory or honor. In the most modern translation, “glory” becomes presence. Here is the section from the end of Exodus Chapter 33: “Moses said to the Eternal, ‘O let me behold K’VODECHA – Your presence!” And God answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name Eternal (God’s 4 letter name YUD HAY VAV HAY) and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show...but you cannot see my face, for a human being may not see me and live.” God then explained to Moses that he would be put in the cleft of a rock as the divine presence passed by, so that Moses would see only God’s back.
In the various Torah commentaries which I consult on the possible meanings of words and phrases, the best explanation I found for the use of KAVOD in this verse came from Robert Alter’s translation of the Torah. Alter explained: “We are not likely to recover precisely what the key term KAVOD – glory, honor, divine presence, and, very literally, ‘weightiness’ – conveyed to the ancient Hebrew imagination. In any case, Moses, who first fearfully encountered God in the fire in the bush, is now ready and eager to be granted a full-scale epiphany, a frontal revelation of the look and character of this divinity that has been speaking to him from within a pillar of the cloud.”
Of course, God didn’t offer to show Moses the divine face or the divine glory. Instead, God told Moses that he would be allowed to see and sense all of God’s goodness – KOL TUVI – defined by the grace and compassion that God would show to Moses and, in turn, to all of humanity. The rest of the definition of divine goodness – and even God’s KAVOD – glory and presence – appeared in God’s declaration to Moses in the verses I am about to chant from the Torah. Specifically, God’s glory and goodness were characterized by mercy, compassion, grace – where grace means a measure of unconditional love and loyalty – patience in the face of possible anger, overflowing kindness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. This was what was revealed to Moses, and, in turn, to the Israelite people after they had forced Aaron the priest, Moses’ brother, to fashion a golden calf for them to wor- ship as if it were God. Moses’ “absence” while he was atop Mount Sinai, like a parent leaving an adolescent child at home alone, had caused the people to lose faith and hope. The revelation to Moses of divine goodness – KOL TUVI-was meant as a reassurance to the people that God, who cannot be seen in a physical way, is still always present.
For our lives, the an important lesson that we can learn from this passage is that we can find footprints or traces of God when we and the people around us put into practice the essence of God’s glory and goodness: mercy, compassion, grace, kindness, patience, loyalty and forgiveness. I am sure that we would all admit that it is next to impossible to exhibit all of those qualities at once, because, of course, we are only human. Yet, the more of those qualities we do practice at once, the better we become as individuals and as a human family. Striving to emulate those divine attributes enables us to create a culture and community of KAVOD, where we truly honor each other by our presence and by giving the best of ourselves. So may we do each day of our lives.