The Face of God, The Face of a Friend: Parashat Ki Tissa 5774/2014

Delivered at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue 

This parasha overwhelms me every year.  In case you haven't read it recently, here is a brief refresher on the content:  Ki Tissa has the census of the Israelite people, instructions for ordination of the priests, the famous V'shamru paragraph about keeping Shabbat, God writing the first set of tablets, the story of the golden calf and ensuing punishment, Moses' defense of the people in the face of God's anger, the second set of tablets, the 13 attributes of God that we say on festivals and on High Holidays, laws of the festivals, and Moses' radiant face coming down the mountain with the second set of tablets.

But through all these themes, one comes calls to me, year after year: the play between revealing and hiding, the dance between a face that can be seen fully and a face that is too radiant to be seen, the desire to be in relationship to that which is totally beloved to us, as close as our own hearts, and yet also Other from us.  As this parasha and Valentine's day coincide this year, we might say that Ki Tissa shows us Moshe and the Holy One as lovers, fighting and drawing each other close, trying to negotiate a loving, intimate relationship that will work for both of them.  

After the story of the golden calf, we are told that Moses would go into the tent to speak with God, and that God spoke to Moses face to face, as a person speaks with their friend. - 

כאשר ידבר איש אל רעהו.

Just a few verses later, though, Moses begs to see God's presence, as proof that God still holds the people of Israel dear, even after they had built the golden calf.  God responds,

 אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל־טוּבִי עַל־פָּנֶיךָ וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָֹה לְפָנֶיךָ וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם: :

Ex. 33:19 “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. 

 כ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת־פָּנָי כִּי לֹא־יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי

Ex. 33:20 But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” 

How is it that Moses spoke to God as one would to a friend, face to face in the Tent of Meeting just a few verses earlier, but now God is saying Moses cannot see God's face and live?

The Ramban, Nachmanides, 12th century commentator, explains it this way: "The meaning is not that Moses would die if he saw God's face.  The meaning is that before someone can achieve that level of seeing, their soul will separate from them."  I understand the Ramban describing a mystical experience that can only come with years or even lifetimes of practice: before totally seeing God's face is possible, a person needs to go through total ego death.  Moses would have to separate from the part of him that identified as Moses, and gain the level of enlightenment that would let him completely identify with God, and understand fully that all is ONE including himself.  Ramban doesn't think that even Moshe Rabeinu is at that place right now.  I certainly think that most of us, most of the time, are not at that level of awareness. 

If "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live" is talking essentially about enlightenment and ego death, what about the verse "Moses spoke to God as a person speaks to their friend"?

We all yearn for deep connection and intimacy.  Brené Brown, shame and vulnerability researcher whom I have been reading a lot lately, articulates that we all have an irreducible need for love and belonging, for a sense of closeness and connection with other people. But our longing for connection doesn't mean the connection is perfect.

I know that I, and many of us, find the limits of human connection painful.  No matter how much we love someone, we still mess up and hurt them.  No matter how much we want to be generous, we still have our own needs to care for. No matter how clear our words and motives, we still have misunderstandings, we still contribute to distance and pain, often with the people we love most.  

Moses spoke with God as a person speaks to their friend.  We usually read this line as proof that Moses has attained an astounding level of intimacy with God, but I want to suggest the verse also points us to the challenges and limits of intimacy.  Moses, on a day to day basis, could only get as close to God as most of us can get to our friends and family.  Full of love, yet still with a sense of separateness.

Yet we can turn this around as well.  By comparing Moses'  interaction with God in the Tent of Meeting to our interactions with another human being, the Torah teaches us that our daily interactions with other human beings can also be Godly.  To truly see the face of our friend or lover as clearly as we can is to be like Moses in the Tent of Meeting, visiting the Divine presence.

I learned a song at Isabella Freedman that speaks directly to this paradox.  The lyrics go like this:

If you want to know God, look into the face of your friend.  Don't look away!  Don't look away!  Don't look away!  But realistically, you cannot look at your friend forever.  The time will come when you each need to leave the other and tend to your family, your business, and the simple cares of your body.  Wherever you turn is the face of God!

Most of us, on most days, are not be able to see God's face the way the Ramban understands it, dying to the part of ourselves that holds onto our separateness.  That kind of complete ego death is a long term spiritual path and process, which we can work toward and play toward, but not expect to reach daily. Most of us cannot see the people around us with that kind of clarity and connection -- the sense that we are truly one with them, that all separateness is an illusion.  We can strive for that madrega, that level, but we usually do not hang out there very long.

But somehow, I think, if we really show up with our vulnerable hearts, full of their foibles and their longings for connection, if we really let ourselves be seen and we really seek to see the other person as as real as we are,  then we are setting ourselves up for the kind of daily connection Moses has with God in the Tent of Meeting. We can see God in the face of our friend, and we can see the face of our friend as God.