In his eagerness to be the best-qualified leader for his people, Moshe makes a bold request of Hashem. The Torah tells us in 33:18 that Moshe requests that Hashem “show him His Honor.” According to Seforno, Moshe wants to understand how in even the most distant and perhaps disastrous situations, Hashem’s Honor can still be perceived and understood. As we live in a new phase of dark times, we can perhaps identify and sympathize with Moshe’s request.
However, Hashem responds to Moshe in Pasuk 23 that he will see only Hashem’s back, but not His face. Rashi explains (quoting Masechet Berachot 7a) that Hashem showed Moshe the knot of His Tefillin Shel Rosh. The Chatam Sofer elaborates that the Tefillin on one’s forehead represents that which is present in his mind and in front of his eyes. The Tefillin knot on the back of the head, on the other hand, represents what the Chatam Sofer calls the “Mekom HaZikaron” – the place of memory. In a separate comment, he adds that seeing Hashem’s back as opposed to His front refers to our ability to understand Hashem only retroactively. When things are happening “in front of our face,” when we are directly seeing the front of the Tefillian Shel Rosh, as it were, we are at a loss to understand. Only after time has passed and other parts of the puzzle are in place – once we are looking back at the “knot” of the Tefillin, at our memories of what already happened – do we start to have a sense of what Hashem has in Mind. The Chatam Sofer refers to Purim as an example of this: only after the King’s decree can we see the death of Vashti and the taking of Esther as necessary steps towards our salvation. Before we have such understanding, however, we have to rely on our Emunah, our belief in Hashem. This, the Chatam Sofer says, is a “Zechut” – a merit for us.
What exactly do we believe about Hashem that brings us this merit? Perhaps one element of this belief is the idea that Chazal talk about in Masechet Megillah regarding the transition from Perek 2 of Megillat Esther into Perek 3. Mordechai appears at the end of the second Perek, and the third then begins with Haman’s promotion. Chazal (Megillah 13b) describe this as Hashem creating the cure before the disease. Our savior is in place before the enemy strikes. Thus, even in the midst of tragedy, we believe that Hashem has already prepared the salvation. Setbacks are not outcomes in and of themselves, but stepping stones towards higher plateaus from which we can perceive Hashem.
Using this idea, perhaps we can understand a phenomenon in the Torah’s account of the Mishkan and the Golden Calf. Rashi tells us in 31:18 that events in the Torah are not necessarily described in chronological order and that the incident of the Golden Calf occurred before the commandment to build the Mishkan. Why would the Torah see fit to present these events in reverse order? The Midrash Rabbah to Shemot 51:8 tells us that Hashem said, “Let the gold of the Tabernacle atone for the gold they brought towards the making of the Golden Calf.” In light of what we discussed above, this Midrash becomes even more revealing. Not only can the Tabernacle be seen as a source of forgiveness for our sin with the Golden Calf, but also as the cure for our transgression. Even though the laws concerning the Mishkan were given after the episode of the Golden Calf, these laws are nevertheless mentioned before that event to show us that Hashem has in Mind the cure before the disease. Our growth and development are what Hashem truly desires. Our involvement with the Golden Calf can teach us what would seem to be a “Golden” Rule – that the combination of our collective Emunah and memory can help us to look back and recognize the presence and mastery of Hashem.