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The Mystery

I know we are in the middle of our BEGINNINGS series, and I really hope that my readers are eager to read  the next post from this series – but as I have already paused for the Purim article, I will take liberty to continue this pause and post a commentary on the current Torah Portion Ki Tissa, one of my favorite portions in the entire Torah. There are many amazing details to be found here, however I would like to talk about a particularly startling story in this portion that has been speaking to my heart for years. I believe that we brush upon a great mystery here—not only regarding Israel, but regarding each one of us as well.

The 33rd chapter of Exodus describes events which happen right after the terrible sin of Israel—the sin of the golden calf and the tablets broken by Moses. At the end of the previous chapter, we saw Moses interceding for the people and being able to persuade God to forgive Israel. This intercession held back the hand of God from consuming the nation in His wrath. As John Chrysostom puts it, “One man, Moses, obtains from God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms.”[1]

Then, Moses receives God’s confirmation: Yes, He allows Moses to continue his mission of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land. However, in God’s words we can still hear the echo of His recent wrath. While commanding Moses and Israel to depart for the Land, He says, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”[2]

It sounds like an absolute and definitive statement, completely clear and expected, completely fair after the terrible sin the people of Israel had just committed. This Torah portion is actually all about this—about God’s holiness and about how He and His presence cannot, by any means, dwell with sinful man:  I will not go up in your midst …

However, just a few verse later we read, and He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.[3] How could it possibly be? Will He go with Israel or will He not? And if yes, how can we explain this seemingly contradictory and sudden change of His decision?

This is the profound mystery we find in this Torah Portion – and in this Book at all: it tells us not only about God’s holiness, but also about God’s mercy. His holiness is such that He cannot dwell and cannot go with sinful and sinning people, and yet, He does choose to dwell and walk with His people, for such is His mercy. Just think of it: each one of us knows millions of reasons why the Lord could, and should, tell us: for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are … stiff-necked. Each one of us fully deserves these words; each one of us fully deserves God’s refusal to go with us – and each one of us is fully aware of that. Yet, more than anything in the world, each of us longs to hear this beautiful truth: My Presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest – and the amazing thing is that this is, indeed, what He is saying to us! This is His astounding promise to each one of us—the incomprehensible mystery of His mercy. We are stiff-necked, we do not deserve His love, His mercy, His presence – and yet, He goes with us and gives us rest.

Malach Panav

So, who did go with Israel in the end? In some translations, we find the same wording in both places, in Ex. 33:3 and Ex.33:14:  “I Myself will not go, “I Myself will go”. But it is different in Hebrew; v.14 literally says: My face will go with you. If we remember that prior to this, the Lord promised to send His Angel (Ex. 33:2), then we come to the Angel of His Face, or Presence – Malach Panav.

Who is this special Angel, Malach Panav? This name is found in full in only one other place, Isaiah 63:9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence (Malach Panav) saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old. However, from time to time in the Scriptures we see this special Angel, who speaks in the name of God, speak from the first person as if he was God—who sometimes stands before people in the form of a man, and after these meetings, people realize that they have seen God, yet their lives have been spared. We see him in Genesis 18, appearing to Abraham, and in Genesis 22, stopping Abraham on Mount Moriah, wrestling with Jacob at Peniel, talking to Gideon, and meeting with Manoa, Samson’s father, and in other places. Historically, Christian tradition has largely understood this Angel to be the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus, while Rabbinic Judaism has branded him with a Judeo Greek name “Metatron” מֵטַטְרוֹן (metatron), meaning something like “the one next to the throne” (made up from two Greek words μετὰ (meta) and θρóνος (thronos).  

Here in Exodus 33, we find him as well: he face, or presence of God, is going with Israel! This is something we need to remember: this amazing promise of His mercy was given first given to Israel. Unfortunately, too often not only our enemies, but also our friends, sometimes even we ourselves, see our people as being completely left and abandoned by God, as walking alone through the vast wilderness of  trials and sorrows – as the ones to whom God said: I will not go up in your midst   Indeed, these were His words to us; but it was also to us that He promised: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” — and this is the most important part! Ever since, His Presence has been going with Israel everywhere – and do you realize what this actually means? All these centuries, throughout all the pain and suffering we went through—pogroms, ghettos, concentration camps—in all those  horrible moments (or weeks, or months, or years) of complete loneliness and misery, when to everybody, including ourselves, we seemed to be utterly abandoned, in reality we were not alone, the Lord has been walking with us!  In all their affliction, He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence (Malach Panav) saved them.

Excerpts from my book about Hidden Messiah (“As Though Hiding His Face”) are included in this article, so if you like the article, you might enjoy also the book. You can access it from my page:   

[1] St. c John Chrysostom , Hom. III, 40

[2] Ex.33:3

[3] Ex.33:14

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março 12, 2020


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