Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah: What Makes Moses So Special?

Moses knew God “face to face.” Can we?

Table For Five: Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

-From the Torah Reading for Simchat Torah, Deut. 34:10


Miriam Mill-Kreisman, Chassidic wife & mother

What does someone have to do to merit speaking with God face to face?

Judaism is about being human yet acting G-dly. At Sinai we were given a G-dly soul but oftentimes it gets hidden inside our coarse body. We have to activate it. The Torah tells us how. And when it gets activated, we are connected to G-dliness. Probably the hardest test is to refine our character traits. And when we mess up, G-d tells Moses to tell us to DO (not just say) the “13 Attributes of Hashem.” Just as G-d is truthful (kind, merciful, etc), He wants us to act the same. We all have what to work on.

It’s at that moment of overcoming our deficiency (whether it be anger, jealousy, ADHD, addiction, you name it), that we encounter G-d. Ironically, we can be grateful for our defects because it’s that struggle that brings us closer to G-d. Ask any 12-step program participant.

Moses may have been born practically perfect, but he still had something to work on. It wasn’t easy putting up with all the Jewish people’s complaints for 40 years. Apparently, he had an anger issue. Yet when G-d wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people, Moses put his entire existence on the line. He became so nullified to G-d and G-d’s people that he was deemed the most humble person in the world, making him worthy of speaking face to face with the Creator of all Existence. Now that’s a public servant!


Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village

God knowing Moses “face to face” in our verse refers to Exodus 33:11, where we learn God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” But we are also taught in Exodus 33:20 that God says “You cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live.” Since there are no mistakes in the Torah, how can both concepts exist? The answer is found in the concept of “his friend.” This is how Moses and God knew each other: as perpetual and permanent friends. A true friend is someone that we know, and knows us. We have learned about them, experienced them, and know at least some of the many ways they make our lives more meaningful. We have a preferential love for them over other people. True friendship is built on personal experience. It’s based on how we treat each other. We know our friends by their actions.

Our “friendship” with God is clearly experienced within the traditional prayer service of Shemini Atzeret. We remind God of the perpetual God/Jewish friendship by asking Him to remember His relationship with our ancestors, and then we call upon that friendship to grant us rain. If we only related to God’s awesomeness as opposed to His loving actions… no human could truly experience that and live. But as a loving friend, whom we personally love and who lovingly acts for us, each of us can – like Moses – know God “face to face.”


Daniel Stein Kokin, Jewish Studies scholar

Panim-el-panim, face-to-face: the expression implies a mutual encounter, two people looking at and speaking to each other. Yet the description in our verse is abstract and flows in only one direction. The Lord knew Moses face-to-face, but not Moses the Lord.

Elsewhere, the Lord speaks to Moses face-to-face (Exodus 33:11) or mouth-to-mouth (Numbers 12:8), and in Deuteronomy 5:4 even the entire people of Israel is involved, but God always does all the talking and the encounter is primarily non-visual. (True, Jacob exclaims in Genesis 32:31, “I saw Elohim face-to-face,” but I don’t take that statement at face value.) What are we to make of such one-sided, abstract “FaceTime?” Why does the text simultaneously grant and withhold–even from Moses–this most special bond? And if divine-human encounters can never be face-to-face, why does Scripture reserve this formulation for them?

My suggestion: we yearn so deeply for complete intimacy with our Maker that the Torah allows and channels poetic glimpses thereof through our greatest prophet or the people as a whole. More radically, God yearns for it, too. It must be lonely to exist at such remove from your dearest creation. “In Israel there never again arose a prophet like Moses”–the Torah’s “seventy faces” have kept us busy ever since. But have other peoples known similar prophets? Or did God refrain from such closeness after Moses’ death on the mountain? And if so, why? “To every man, his Nebo,” wrote Rachel the Poetess. Might God have had His?


Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy

Moses’ prophecy was unique in several ways, including that it happened in a fully conscious state and required separation from his spouse (it could happen at any time, so he needed to remain in a state of constant ritual purity). Beyond these personal factors, however, Moses was unique because of the leadership he demonstrated. Moses is humble (Bamidbar 12:3), he fights for what is just (Shmot 2:11-15), and he acts as an educator of his people (Devarim 4:1-6).

Moses knows that strong leaders rely on others; instead of acting unilaterally, he appoints chiefs of the people (Shmot 18:25), and he increasingly relies on Yitro, Miriam, Aaron and Joshua for their support in his leadership. And finally, Moses plans for the future of his people. Like all good leaders, Moses knows that his life’s work is worthy only if it can live on without him.

While Moses is heartbroken to be leaving his people and desires to enter Israel, he still plans for Israel’s success beyond his lifetime. Moses anoints Joshua, in front of all the people (Dvarim 3:28). Or HaChaim comments: “Moses…told Joshua to exert authority over Israel already while he was still alive. He personally would support him in this before the eyes of the whole nation.” By ensuring that Torah and the people of Israel would thrive after he dies, Moses teaches us what it means to be a leader – combined with his other attributes, there never again has been a prophet like Moses.


David Brandes, Screenwriter – Producer of The Quarrel

God chose to have a personal relationship with only one man, Moses. Moses did not rely on dreams or signs to know God’s will; he actually spoke with God, face to face! And the Torah goes even further to say that no man past or future will ever have such a relationship… Why?

What was the defining quality of Moses that allowed him this closeness with God? Was it brilliance, physical prowess, perhaps a degree from Harvard? No, it was humility. Numbers 12:3 states it clearly: “And the man Moses was very humble more than any person on the face of the earth.”

What is humility? How do we identify it? Why is it so important? My good friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains it beautifully in his masterwork, A Code of Jewish Ethics: “In truth, humility is not difficult to define (though it is hard to embody). It means not regarding ourselves as more important than other people, including those who have archived less than we have. And it implies judging ourselves not in comparison with others, but in light of our capabilities, and the tasks we believe God has set for us on earth.”

In this holy time of atonement and forgiveness it would be helpful to keep humility in mind so that we may strive in our dealings with others to become better Jews and better citizens.

With thanks to Rabbi Michael Barclay, Dr. Erica Rothblum, David Brandes, Miriam Mill Kreisman, and Daniel Stein Kokin. 

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