“To See the Face of God”
By Chaplain Claire Gorfinkel, ’11
Ki Tisa is among our very rich parshaot, including several vital and interesting topics: adornment of the tabernacle; the crisis of the Golden Calf; the introduction of Bezalel and his artistry; the destruction of the first set of tablets, and the carving of a second set; and Moses persuading God not to destroy this “stiff-necked” people. But there is a particular episode that captures my attention every time we reach this piece of Torah: Moses begs to see God – to see God’s kavod, or glory – and God responds: “I will make all my goodness pass before you . . . [but] you will not be able to see my face [panai], for no human can see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18-20)
Just a few weeks ago we read in Parashat Mishpatim that Moses, accompanied by Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel apparently did behold the Holy One. They ascended the mountain at God’s instruction “and they saw the God of Israel . . . they gazed at Elohim and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:10-11) For those of us who like our Torah at the peshat level, this text seems pretty straightforward.
For those of us who prefer more abstract images there are also several times when we are told that God appeared to Moses as a thick cloud, and in Ki Tisa we are told in more detail: “v’daber Adonai el Moshe panim al-panim . . .” God would appear in a pillar of cloud at the entrance to the tent and speak to Moses “face to face, as one person speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11).
Did Moses see God’s “face”? In Hebrew as in English, the word has many meanings: the “front” of something, the surface, the appearance, even self-respect (as in “losing face”) and worth (as in “face value”). Think of “tête-a-tête,” speaking directly, rather than through an intermediary.
Many years ago, when I was slowly working my way back to Judaism, we were discussing Ki Tisa in a minyan, and the leader asked: “Would you want to see God’s face?” Two responses have stuck in my mind. One person said, “No, it would be too overwhelming, too awesome, too intense.” Another responded that for us to see the face of God would promote racism: “If God’s face was that of a white person, wouldn’t that automatically cause us privilege ‘white’ complexions over all others?” What if God appeared to be a woman, or a young person: how would that affect our biases?
Moses did not ask to see God’s panim, but to see God’s kavod, God’s glory (or “presence”). In response, God instructs Moses to stand in the cleft of a rock, saying “ani ahavir kol tuvi al-panecha:” I will cause kol tuvi – all my goodness – to pass before you (by your face!): all my goodness or “Godliness,” presumably both animate and inanimate.
From this I conclude that we can indeed see the face of God whenever we encounter goodness: in human creations of art, music, and literature; in the natural world of mountains, streams and flowers; in acts of generosity, kindness and compassion, indeed in the faces of our friends, our family, those who have gone before us and those we have yet to meet.
Kein y’hi ratzon.