Pesach III Shabbat – Erev Shabbat 10 April 2020
Week of 5-11 April 2020
Torah portion: Exodus 33:12-34:26 Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Theme: God’s inexhaustible and undeserved mercy

The Torah reading, assigned particularly for this Pesach Shabbat does not follow the parashah read last week. It is selected with a special focus. It zooms in not on the exodus, but rather on the mystery of God’s inexhaustible and undeserved mercy.

We find ourselves at Mount Sinai witnessing a mysterious exchange between Moses and God, who reveals to him the divine goodness and the name LORD, and renews the covenant with Israel. The giving of the Torah reminds us of Shavuot, and the Thirteen Attributes of God at the center of our portion, echo Yom Kippur, when they are recited. Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur all come together, as if time has disappeared, or has been united in the mercy of God. God’s mercy fills and transcends all time and space, reaching out to all of us.

Twice in the first six verses we hear God’s words to Moses, “I have singled you out by name” (JPS translation), literally, “I know you by name”. (Ex 33:12.17) Moses is the only one in the Torah, of whom God pronounces such words. They indicate a “recognition beyond the rest of mankind through a reputation of importance,” when God came to Moses in the thickness of the cloud (Rashi, 466). The phrase signifies a “close, exclusive, and unique association with God” (Etz Hayim, 538). But not only God knows Moses by name. God also wants to be known by name by Moses, who expresses his desire in a plea “let me know Your ways, that I may know You” (33:13). Twice in the next few verses we hear “proclaimed the name LORD” (33:17; 34:5), uniquely displayed in the Thirteen Attributes of God (34:6-7). So generous and so quick is the response of the LORD to Moses’ requests to know him.

Before calling out the attributes of divine mercy, the LORD reveals to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious“. (Ex 33:19) Is it not only a statement of the obvious, “I shall show favour to those whom I shall favour”? (translations follow Midrash and Rashi). As Rashi points out, God’s mercy is inexhaustible, yet we should not rely on it. There is no guarantee of a favourable response to the invocation of the Thirteen Attributes (Gur Aryeh). Ancient rabbis came up with quite a different interpretation. A midrash relates how God shows Moses all the treasures, prepared as a reward for the righteous. Moses inquires about various treasures, to whom they belong, and God replies, “To those who fulfil My commandments,” and, “To those who bring up orphans.” When finally he asks about a huge treasure, God answers, “To the one who has such things to his credit I give of his reward, but to the one who has not, I have to supply freely and I help him from this great pile – and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious – namely, unto the one to whom I wish to be gracious,” even if one has not earned it. (GenRb 45:6)

In his initial dialogue Moses repeats five times, that he has found favour in God’s eyes. He certainly knows well, that to find favour or grace with the LORD is undeserved, yet reliable and rich, just as God’s inexhaustible mercy, revealed in today’s special Torah reading.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Mercy is not justice; it is a different concept. Reflect on the rabbinic understanding of the divine mercy and how it could be applied in your own life. 2. Moses insists on finding favour in God’s eyes. The first man to find favour in God’s eyes in the Torah is Noah before the flood (Gen 6:8). Compare and discuss both cases.

Bibliography: Herczeg, Y., ed. The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary: Exodus (New York, 1999); Lieber, D. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, 1999); Freedman, H. Midrash Rabbah (London 1983)

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