Does the Holy One have a face?
Table for Five: Shabbat HaGadol
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And He said, “You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.”
– Ex. 33:20, Torah reading for Chol Hamoed Shabbat
Bracha Goetz, Author of 42 books that help souls shine
You will not be able to see into the future. Why? Because what you do determines how the future will play out.
Expressed in another consciousness-raising way in Psalms 121:5, we learn: “God is your shadow.” Wow, that seems like a pretty lowly way to describe The Infinite Oneness! But as the Baal Shem Tov elucidates, a shadow copies every movement that a person makes. God’s actions correspond to our actions. The future is determined by how we live. So while we are still alive, we are still determining how the future will emerge based on our actions.
This Torah wisdom is tremendously empowering.
Passover is a recurring point in the spiral of time imbued with intense spiritual potential for us to break free from enslavement in our past so that we can more fully behave as our authentic selves. We have increased Divine assistance during the Passover holiday to emerge from a narrow and constrained place and transcend limitations to which we have gotten accustomed.
No matter how lowly, shameful, or unworthy we may feel, the ability to transcend our limitations is more possible now. Making that first crack in a bad habit and getting released from the prison of an addiction can be more easily accomplished at this time of spiritual liberation.
You are, amazingly, infinitely resilient. And each small positive action forward is a joyful victory to celebrate. You get to see a bright future ahead as you let your soul shine.
Nili Isenberg, Judaic Studies Faculty, Pressman Academy
Abraham Ibn Ezra was one of our most important biblical commentators. In addition to his biblical commentaries, he also wrote beautiful liturgical poems. One such piyyut, which I have enjoyed singing around the Shabbat table, comes to mind. In the poem, called “Tzama Nafshi” (“My Soul Thirsts for God”), the first verse borrows from our passage: “The one true God created me / And told me I am alive / ‘but man cannot see me and live.’”
This is the paradox: We long to know God, and yet God is elusive. As it says in Shir HaShirim, which is read this Shabbat of Passover, “I sought the one my soul loves, but did not find him” (Song of Songs 3:1).
One way we feel the closeness of God on these holidays is at Yizkor. When we reach out with “El Maleh Rachamim” (“God, full of mercy”) in a request to the Divine to grant rest to the souls of our departed, we can surely feel God’s presence among us beside those of the deceased.
But it is not our time to rest with God. We are commanded to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). We strive to live a life of Torah, a life of blessings and gratitude. We come together at synagogue for our holiday prayers and gather around our festive meals to sing songs. In this way, as Ibn Ezra says “with heart and flesh,” may we merit a taste of the World to Come and God’s presence this Passover.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-Faith Chaplain, Kaiser Medical Center, Panorama City
God and Moses’ connection is arguably the preeminent and singular relationship in all history. In verse 11, Moses encounters God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Lo and behold, nine verses later and God is forbidding any human from looking upon God’s face, lest s/he die. So as the saying goes, “What gives?”
The Torah tells us that this encounter happens in the Ohel Mo’ed, i.e. The Tent of Meeting, where Moses receives his charge from God to lead the people after Israel gains a Divine pardon for the sin of the golden calf. Moses then entreats God to reveal God’s self. With assurances to His exemplary servant, God relents with a promise that Moses will obtain a unique grace, extraordinary compassion, even access to the Divine name! Should that not suffice?
In the most intimate moments, friends, partners, and lovers become better acquainted than ever. Promises are forged. These instances feel like windows beyond our normal reckoning, a view to the eternal. One might say, it’s impossible to put the feeling into words. And yet, how completely do we know the others in our lives? Despite our sincere bid, can the most devoted confidant fully know us? Oft times we have a hint, a micro-expression which betrays the intimacy, that breaks the unspoken harmony. A sign: it’s too much to handle. How much more so is it between The Almighty and Moses? If not the whole Divine revelation, at least the most awesome measure of loving mercy.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
This verse reveals to us a piece of coded divine terminology. We learn that a non-corporeal God has a “face.” This is rather surprising, and it demands explanation.
Some clues to the meaning of this apparently euphemistic language can be found in the verses that surround it. In response to Moses’ request to see God’s glory, God tells Moses that He will pass “all of my goodness” over “your face” (33:18-19). There is a seeming reciprocity of faces taking place. Moreover, it is apparent that God’s face, as it were, is something even more overwhelming and awesome than all of His “goodness.”
We do in fact learn what is meant by God’s goodness. A few verses later, God reveals to Moses the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (34:6-7). We learn that God is as unceasingly compassionate, patient, and forgiving as He is righteous and just. This is in itself a profound statement of divine intention and orientation towards humanity, yet it falls short of what must be meant by God’s face. This is because God’s face represents His very identity, not merely His relationship with His creations.
God Himself—His “face”—is vast and unfathomable, and a true recognition of this threatens to leave no room for human life. God’s ineluctable and all-permeating existence would subsume our own. Nevertheless, we can be assured that God sees and nurtures our individual faces, i.e. what makes each of us unique and distinct. Our task is to reciprocate, to turn our faces to God.
Rabbi David Eliezrie, President Rabbincal Council of Orange County
We live in a time where we think all is possible. Technology is bubbling with astonishing new apps. Medicine is bursting with new ideas. We live in countries where freedom and human rights are central values. These remarkable accomplishments prompt us to think all is possible.
Herein lies the danger. The world is much more complex; beyond the physical dimension is a Divine attribute that we cannot comprehend. Pondering the greatness of G-d, how he or she (because G-d transcends gender) creates a humility and appreciation that the world was created and orchestrated by a power we cannot comprehend. Yes, we can control much, but not everything.
This is most important when it comes to moral decisions. We tend to rationalize, “I feel good about this so it must be good.” A person who knows that the world was created by a G-d that is so awesome that we cannot comprehend its greatness or see its glory will then pause and ask, “Is this what G-d wants?”
That is defined in the Torah, which is the guidebook that G-d gave to the world.
The Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman faced a fateful decision, to study in Vilna under the great Rabbi Eliyahu, or go to Mezritch and learn with the Chassidic master, Rabbi Dov Ber. In Vilna the focus was on the the legalism of Talmud, in Mezritch, the spiritual and mystical were emphasized. Ultimately, he chose Mezritch, commenting; “In Vilna they teach you how to master Torah, in Mezritch they teach how the Torah can master you.”
With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Nili Isenberg, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, and Rabbi David Eliezrie
Image: Rock Formation in Israel by Denis UA
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