One of the more enigmatic passages in the Torah describes a mysterious encounter that took place following the Sin of the Golden Calf. After successfully pleading on behalf of the Jewish people, Moses took advantage of this special time of Divine favor. “Please let me have a vision of Your Glory!”
God replied that it is impossible for mortal man “to have a vision of Me and live.” However, God agreed to protect Moses in a mountain crevice as He “passed by.”
“You will then have a vision of My back. My face, however, will not be seen.” (Ex. 33:17-23)
This account raises many questions. The most obvious problem concerns the story’s anthropomorphic elements. God has no body; what do the allegorical terms ‘back’ and ‘face’ mean?
The Talmudic commentary for this puzzling incident only adds to our confusion. The Sages explained that God revealed His ‘back’ to Moses by showing him the knot of God’s “tefillah shel rosh.” (The “tefillah shel rosh,” the phylactery worn on the head, is held in place by means of a leather strap tied to the back of the head with a special knot.)
What is the significance of God’s tefillin knot? Why did God choose to reveal that particular part of His tefillin to Moses?
There are two levels of knowledge. The first is an accurate knowledge of an object’s true nature. The second is a limited knowledge, restricted by our intellectual or physical limitations. Regarding tangible objects, there may not be a significant difference between the two levels of knowledge. But when dealing with abstract concepts, especially with regard to the nature of God, the difference will be great — perhaps infinitely so.
The Torah is based on the second type of knowledge. It presents us with a perception of God according to our limited grasp, since only this type of knowledge can provide ethical guidance. Knowledge of God’s true nature, on the other hand, is not a form of comprehension at all. As God informed Moses: “Man cannot have a vision of Me and live.”
Now we may begin to understand the metaphor of God’s tefillin. Contained inside tefillin are scrolls with verses declaring God’s unity and Divine nature. These verses signify a comprehension of God’s true reality. This truth, however, is beyond human understanding. How can we relate to this infinite truth? What brings it down to the level of our intellectual capabilities, enabling this knowledge to enlighten us and provide moral direction?
The function of the knot is to bind the “tefillah shel rosh” to the head — and intellect. The knot symbolizes a level of comprehension that takes into account the abilities of those contemplating, so that they may grasp and utilize this knowledge.
The imagery of God’s ‘face’ and ‘back’ corresponds to these two levels of knowledge. ‘Face’ in Hebrew is panim, similar to the word p'nim, meaning inner essence. True knowledge of God’s infinite reality is God’s ‘face.’
Knowledge of God’s reality according to our limited understanding, on the other hand, is referred to as God’s ‘back.’ Moses was granted this partial, indirect knowledge — a grasp of the Divine that we are able to appreciate and apply in our finite world.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p.33)