Seeing the Back, Beholding the Face

I’m meeting Andi in the city one night to attend a Federation event. I enter the crowded, noisy hall and start looking for her. Finally, I see her on the other side of the room with her back to me, talking to some people I don’t know. I can’t see her face, but I recognize the style of her hair, the shape of her body, the clothing she’s wearing, and I make my way towards her, ready to take her hand and begin our evening.

There are few people in our lives whom we can recognize without the benefit of direct sensory confirmation.  A child, a parent, a sibling, a spouse – the people with whom we share the most intimate bonds are those whose presence we can feel even when separated by distances large or small, even in darkness.  Like the force that wakes us in the middle of the night because we sense that our partner or child is up and needs attention, the strength of those sensations is independent of any sensory confirmation like a touch, a glimpse or a kiss.

While we might instinctively think that we are most closely bound to those whom we can see and touch, the Torah teaches us the precise opposite: that a relationship – human or divine -- whose depth is based on intuition rather than empirical proof is the stronger bond filled with more intimacy and possibility than any other.   

In Parashat Ki Tisa, which describes some of the events surrounding the giving of the Torah on Sinai which we celebrate on Shavuot, Moshe, the prophet with the most intimate and direct relationship with God, asks the boldest question in the Torah:   

  הראני נא את כבודך“Show me, God, your presence”.  God replies, לא יראני האדם וחי “No person can see My face and live.” In the end, Moshe only gets to see God’s back.  

Rambam in his code, the Mishneh Torah, discusses Moshe’s experience in the section called הלכות יסודי התורה “Fundamentals of the Torah”.  He explains that God revealed to Moshe something of God’s existence that distinguished God from all other beings, without revealing God’s face. 

Rambam wrote, “It is similar to the recognition of someone you know only through seeing that person from the back, seeing their body and clothing and understanding the person’s distinctiveness from other human beings.”  

Without ever seeing God’s face, Moshe nonetheless saw enough to know he was in the presence of the Divine; he saw enough to be able recognize the holy One.  

לא יראני האדם וחי. What does it mean that a human could not survive seeing the face of God?Would such an encounter actually be fatal? What exactly would die were we to see God’s face?

The 16th century Italian commentator Sforno explains, “You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you could see.” He seems to suggest that actually seeing God would result in a deadly blindness that would obscure wisdom, that would conceal, and not reveal, the very knowledge you seek.

What would truly die if you were to see God’s face would be humility, doubt, and what we consider to be the sacred practice of asking questions, of dialoguing and probing, for truth, for understanding. The Hasidic master known as the Kedushat Levi points out that the letter  אלף represents the foundation of all knowledge, and if you spell it backwards you get “פלא”, which means wonder, curiosity; they are inextricably bound to one another. If you felt you had access to ultimate knowledge, if you knew everything you needed to know, all of that would die. As the line goes, “If I knew God, I would be God.”

The legacy of that unparalleled moment between God and Moshe, the legacy that needs to be part of our Shavuot reflections on the nature of revelation, is something we call theological humility. Theological humility makes demands of us in two dimensions: that of the limitedness of all human spiritual knowledge, and the limitlessness of all human spiritual imagination. 

On one level that moment shows us that despite how deep and strong our faith might be, no one, not even Moshe, could ever claim to know exactly what God looks like, or, exactly what God is, (or even if God is), or exactly what God wants of us. That is one essence of theological humility, captured by the Torah’s description of Moshe: 

וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה

 Moses was the most humble person on earth.

Ideally this legacy of humility would help ensure respectful relations between Jews and other religious communities, not to mention between different Jewish communities, as we would recognize that no one has a monopoly on God, or ultimate Truth, capital T; that all of us are, in the end, seekers of truth, and are only in possession of partial, incomplete understandings. I once heard Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld teach that this is the essence of the opening words of our Shabbat morning amidah:  ישמח משה במתנת חלקו -- that Moshe was satisfied with the gift of his portion, his piece, his fragment, of wisdom. Halevai more of us could be, too.

Sadly, too many remain ignorant of this critical lesson of the Torah. For too many, this fundamental humility, one which makes room for diversity and pluralism, means granting someone else the right to be wrong. Long ago in rabbinical school I learned from Rabbi Joel Roth that pluralism really means granting someone else not the right to be wrong, but the right to be right. The fatal risk, literally as the Torah suggests, of thinking you know what God looks like is theological arrogance, arrogance which creates bias and often leads to aggressive, violent, and even murderous behaviour, behaviour that is increasinigly marring and risking our own civil society here in the US. 

It’s not conflict that threatens our nation or any other; it’s not differences of opinion on border security, gun control, healthcare, or racial justice that threaten us. Conflict is actually a sign of a healthy society; one in which people of all kinds care enough to debate and advocate for matters of great urgency. 

What does threaten us is the lack of humility in the discourse around these issues. What does threaten us is the lack of awareness permeating our politics and our civic life that all any of us have, at best, is a portion of the truth, a limited view, a glimpse of only the back. 

When we dig deep we find threads of continuity between all the Jewish holidays. And in fact, Purim has something profound to teach us about Shavuot.

Generations of rabbis and scholars have tried to explain the glaring absence of any mention of God in Megillat Esther.  Some have tried to force veiled references onto the text.  Others came up with fanciful midrashim.  Rav Yitzchak Hutner laid it right on the table: God wasn’t there.  But that doesn’t mean God was absent.

Again in the Mishneh Torah, Rambam confirms the striking rabbinic teaching that in the end of days, when the world is redeemed (whatever that means), all the holidays that we observe will no longer be observed for they will have been fulfilled.  The only holiday that we Jews will continue to keep in the days of the Mashiah will be the holiday of Purim.  Strange!  We might have thought Pesah would remain forever on our calendars with its noble teachings about freedom and justice, or our annual festival of renewal and repentance that is Rosh Hashanah.  Why grant such important status to the relatively minor holiday of Purim that we associate with drinking, feasting, and parties?  (To tell you the truth, it sounds like my kind of redemption…)

Rav Hutner compares the redemption of Pesah with the redemption of Purim and notes that the former involved the direct and explicit presence of God in the form of the plagues, the splitting of the sea and other supernatural miracles.

In contrast, the redemption of Purim involved no direct or explicit presence of God whatsoever.  In that time of Divine silence and darkness, it was up to Mordecai and Esther to generate the presence of the holy One through their actions and deeds, asserting themselves and risking their lives for their people, their values and their beliefs.  Though they could not see or identify any explicit presence of God in that moment, they knew intuitively what it was they held to be sacred and what their responsibility was.  They sensed the ultimacy of the moment.  By living as images of God, they together brought God into the story.  

The absence of God or any explicit divine miracles in the Megillah is seen not as an omission of God but more as an invitation to us as human beings to assume responsibility for manifesting the presence of God and holiness into our world, especially in times of darkness and need.  

Despite the onslaught of divisiveness, hate-filled rhetoric and renewed violence against Jews and other minorities, we actually live in a time of great potential and great hope – for humanity, for nature and the environment, and for the Jewish people.  But we can’t rely on someone else, not even on God, to do the hard and courageous work of defending our safety and our dignity, of standing up for those who are oppressed and those who are at risk, of making sacrifices for the wellbeing of our planet, and of tirelessly pursuing peace, justice and freedom.  

When we sense the presence of meaning and purpose in our lives, when we find the strength and conviction to stand up for what we believe, to work for what we value, then the message we send is not that we have to do the work because God is absent – quite the contrary!  The message we send is that we have been given the space and the power to reveal the face of the Divine to the world. 

This intuition, this profound expression of human inspiration and will, comes from the gift of Moshe being able to see only God’s back, the gift of each of us being granted the ability to sense and the responsibility to identify the presence of holiness in our lives -- in spite of our limited, restricted knowledge -- and then to act accordingly. 

In the midst of the drama of revelation, the people made a golden calf when they feared Moshe would never descend from Mount Sinai.  They created an image of the god they could not see and in making that image they violated both God and humanity.  They violated God by suggesting that the limitless could be limited by confining the unknowable, infinite face of God into a finite image.  This, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches, is the definition of the sin of idol worship. The sin is not bowing down to a rock; the sin is identifying God with a rock and suggesting that God is unchanging and static. But the people violated humanity, too, when they built this golden calf by suggesting that a vital relationship with God must be based on a fixed or single perception of the divine. This then, is the second dimension of theological humility that remains from the scene between God and Moshe – the legacy of the limitlessness of human spiritual imagination.

Theology is contextual.  As we grow and change, so does our understanding of God.  Each of life’s experiences shapes our perception of the divine, of the holy One.  A child’s faith is no less authentic than that of an adult’s; the faith of one who is suffering is no more authentic than that of one who is at peace.  This doesn’t reduce God to the product of our imaginations; it’s the power of the Divine to be able to appear to some as the bearded grandfather or mother earth and to others as a cosmic force; to some as the source of ultimate meaning and to others as the inspiration within us to do good. Were God to have revealed to Moshe, and by extension to all of us who would inherit the encounter, one single, particular image of the Divine, all of our religious lives would be beholden to and confined by that image.  We would either have to believe in it, or find ourselves outside of the faith.  

This is why God said לא יראני האדם וחי “No one can see my face and live.”  For were we to have been given a fixed image for all that we are moved and inspired by, there would be no room in this world for the rich and beautiful diversity on which nature and human life thrive, and for the constancy of change that is its engine. 

By refusing to manifest a complete picture of God, the encounter bestowed upon all of us this other aspect of theological humility: the validity and sanctity of each of our own unique images of the Divine and the relationships they inspire. It also bestowed on us the need to show each other respect and generosity for our differing, and evolving, beliefs about God. 

A compelling illustration of this comes from the life of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, who was the head of the rabbinical school at YU for over 50 years and one of the 20th century’s leading talmudists and Jewish philosophers. In addition to his rabbinic training he also studied at the University of Berlin where he earned his PhD in Philosophy. Interestingly, among his fellow students there were Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Rabbi Heschel, figures who would become major gedolim of Torah scholarship and Jewish leadership, each in their own ideological and theological camps. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in the cafeteria at lunchtime...  Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings remain a core source of learning today throughout the Jewish world. 

Amongst the many writings of the Rav are two seminal books, Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith. The former he wrote in the middle of his illustrious career, expressing in almost promethean terms the strength and courage of one who commits themselves to a life of Torah in partnership with the Divine as a co-creator of the human experience. The latter he wrote towards the end of his leadership, after the death of his beloved wife Tonya with whom he enjoyed a legendary love. The book mourns the lonely and alienating existence of one who is immersed in the quest for spiritual and existential purpose. Would anyone dare question the theological integrity of the Rav, or even his intellectual coherence? Of course not. The differences between his two books reveal the ongoing dynamism that animates a life of faith, leading us through the changing landscapes of the mind and heart as we seek meaning and redemption over the course of our lives. 

This, too, was revealed to us on Sinai.

It’s 1985 and I’m living on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University.  A struggler all my life when it comes to belief in God, my commitment to daily prayer, molded by 13 years of yeshiva day school, always made for an interesting adventure – theologically and liturgically.  That year, I developed the habit of climbing onto the roof of the supermarket in Building 19 from where one could enjoy a spectacular view of both old and new Jerusalem.  Davening on the roof, I relied less on the words in my siddur for inspiration than on the living history bustling before my eyes.  As I came to the Amidah, the core of the prayer service, something happened that changed my life:  I was given the chance to see God’s back.  Not God’s face, but enough of God’s back to be able to sense the presence of the holy One, to know it’s here, and to strive to live my life accordingly.

As I began to recite the blessings of the Amidah, taking advantage of my solitude on the roof to sing aloud, suddenly the muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer, started to blast through the loudspeakers in East Jerusalem.  And a second later the church bells from the Mormon center on Mount Scopus began to ring.  There we were, the three of our voices, calling out to a God that none of us could claim to know by face, whose essence none of us could completely describe, but whose presence in the world we all adamantly proclaimed.

I hope and pray that the gift of seeing only God’s back continues to inspire all people to work for the fullest vision of peace by elevating the best of each four respective pieces – of insight, of passion, of hope, of faith – aleynu ve’al kol yisrael v’al kol yoshvei tevel – for us and all of Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. 

May we remember to open more than our eyes to observe all there is to discover in this world; to extend more than our hands to touch all that is real in this world; to attune more than our ears to hear the many messages of hope and trust in this world.  May we learn to use that deeper, inner chush, that deeper, inner intuition that we have the power to access when we truly open our minds, hearts and souls; that inner awareness of the presence of the holy One that makes life worth living, that makes love worth risking, and that makes the Divine worth serving.