On Yom Kippur we read a fascinating bit of Torah. Moses at Sinai is blessed by having a moment of revelation with God, when he suddenly calls out a request that he wants to actually see God.
This might seem odd – given that God, by definition, has no physical form. He might be onto something, though, because God seems to agree.
Moses is shielded with a hand, and then gets to see the back of God – but is not permitted to see God’s face.
It is almost as if Abraham’s rejection of idols – of gods with physical forms – never happened.
Is this blasphemy or is something else going on?
It is clear the intention of Moses is to get as close as possible to God, to “see” pure spirituality.
We don’t have the language to aptly describe God, so Moses has to resort to the language of physical bodies that is available to him.
In fact, the response acknowledges our human inability to really define God by giving us the 13 attributes of God, at least a foothold to understanding what divinity and holiness is.
But not even Moses – the greatest Jewish leader – can see God’s face. No one is able to fully grasp what holiness and spirituality is.
We try hard, especially at times like Yom Kippur, but we must accept that our understanding will always be partial.
Perhaps in a fleeting moment we will get lucky – maybe catch a glimpse of a toe or a flick of hair.
And maybe our best chance to understand this unknowable part of our religious experience is if we form holy communities and piece together the small glimpses each of us has managed to gather.
Together, our individual insights might help us find some understanding.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is the former senior rabbi of Reform Judaism