In a scene of personification extraordinaire, God “walks” past Moses, covering him with a “hand” so that Moses will not see God’s “face,” but only God’s “back.” Knowing that God cannot walk, has neither hand, back, nor face, we are left with a tremendous ability to interpret here, and as the centuries have passed, the commentators have taken this opportunity often.
Rashi (in one of the more laughable and yet more famous Rashi-isms) says that “My back” means that Moses can see the knot in God’s Tefillin. Saadia Gaon calls it “The end of God’s light,” implying that we cannot know God from the beginning, only from the end. Ibn Ezra points out that it is a metaphor, but does not explain it, instead choosing to talk about other metaphors and draw parallels. Bechor Shor explains the metaphor as incomprehensible, since we cannot look God square on. My personal favorite comes from a combination of Ralbag and Sforno. Gersonides interprets “my back” as “events that I leave in my wake,” and Sforno teaches that Moses will see how the actions of the world below originate with God above.
When we see God’s back, therefore, we are seeing the results of God’s work in the world. Sforno describes in another commentary a footprint left in the sand. We no longer see the foot, but we know one was there. So too with God’s work in the world. We see the events God leaves in God’s wake, like the Israelites saw with the plagues and the Sea of Reeds, like Noah saw in the rainbow, and like Elijah saw in the still small voice as God passed by the mouth of his cave. The difference between the Israelites, Noah, and Elijah is that the Israelites and Noah needed huge, glaring signs of God’s presence, whereas Elijah recognized the soft murmuring sound as God’s true voice.
When God’s presence is glaring and in our face, noticing God is easy. We thank God for a miraculous recovery of someone’s health, for the fingers-of-God that pierce a cloudy sky and warm us on a dreary day, and for the epiphanies we get when studying a difficult topic. We do not always recognize God’s work in the every day, in water we drink, air we breathe, or light we use to see. As Sforno reminds us, everything in the world below originates with God. It is our job to take notice, to recognize the still small voice that calls to us from what seems like the mundane aspects of life.