The portion read on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach, Exodus 33:12-34:26, contains some of the most extraordinary passages in the Torah. Moses asks God to “show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee” (Exodus 33:13) and gets the comforting response, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” But five verses later, apparently not content with that response, Moses asks, “Show me, I pray Thee, Thy Glory.” God responds, in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation:
I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exodus 33:19)
“Etz Hayim,” the JPS commentary on the Torah, annotates this with the remark that “the syntax indicates indefiniteness. God is reminding Moses that He is a free agent. There is no magical practice that is automatically effective in influencing His behavior.”
But this is playing down the harsh truth that is being given to us. A much clearer explanation is to be found in “The Midrash on Psalms” (Yale University Press, 1959). In Psalm 25, verse 4, we find the request, “Show me Thy ways, O Lord.” This is the first request of Moses. After commenting on it, the midrash goes on to the second request of Moses:
But when Moses said: Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory, that is to say, “Show me the rule whereby Thou guidest the world,” God replied: “My rules thou canst not fathom.”
Moses is being told, in other words, that the manner in which God’s mercy manifests itself in the world is not intelligible to him. This is the same response that Job got from the Voice out of the Whirlwind. After Job had protested his innocence, and by implication the brutal injustice of the slaughter of his children and the other things done to him, and Job’s friends had finished telling him how just God really is, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said (Job 38:4):
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if you have the understanding.
And, after two chapters of similarly gorgeous but withering rhetorical questions from the heights, poor Job is asked (Job 40:8):
Will you even make void My judgment?
Will you condemn Me, that you may be justified?
Job repents, and confesses that acts of God are beyond his comprehension, and the friends who went on at length about God’s justice are told, in Job 42:7, “you have not spoken of Me the thing that is right.”
Similarly, to come back to this week’s Torah reading, Moses is told that all he’ll be able to make of God’s mercy is that He is merciful to some and not merciful to others. The rabbinic tradition intends this response to Moses in Exodus 33:19 to be read as part of the celebration of Passover. We are being encouraged to use the story of the Exodus to help us understand the meaning of God’s response to Moses concerning mercy.
How can we do this? The most straightforward way is by means of the standard rabbinic technique of citing Proof texts, as is done in the Haggadah:
I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, as it is said in Exodus 1:11 and 1:14: “Therefore they did set over [the children of Israel] taskmasters to afflict them.… And the Egyptians made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick.”
Another interpretation: I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, as it is said in Exodus 2: 5-6, “And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river… and she saw the ark… and behold a boy that wept. And she had compassion on him.”
Another interpretation: I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, as it is said in Exodus 11:29, “And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.”
Another interpretation: I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, as it is said in Exodus 14:22, “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon dry ground.”
Another interpretation: I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, as it is said in Exodus 14:28, “And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; and there remained not so much as one of them.”
Four hundred years of slavery preceded the splitting of the Sea. The response to Moses in Exodus 33:19 should convince us that it is wrong to attempt to understand the story of the Exodus in terms of a God who acts in a manner morally intelligible to human beings. And if those who formulated the rabbinic tradition didn’t want something like this to be in our minds as Passover ends, why prescribe Exodus 33:19 as part of the Torah reading for the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach?
David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.