To see God’s faces

To see God’s faces

Rabbi Mark Mahler
Rabbi Mark Mahler

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

“You cannot see My face, for no one shall see Me and live.”

This declaration is as emphatic as any in the Torah.  God issues it in response to Moses’ plea, “Oh, let me behold Your presence.”  God then places Moses in a cleft of a rock, shields him from viewing, then allows Moses to “see My back, but My face must not be seen.”

If we somehow miss this message, the Torah repeats it again and again as the rare passage in Torah that we read three times a year: first on this Shabbat during Sukkot, then as part of Parashat Ki Tissa, and then on the Shabbat during Pesach.

But wait …

At the very end of the Torah, in Moses’ epitaph we read that, “God knew Moses face to face.”  Moreover, earlier in Torah, God assures the entire people that if they keep God’s Covenant, God’s face will be manifest to them, God’s face will lead them and favor them. Not only that exalted generation, but every generation of the Jewish people are to experience manifestations of God’s face, as the Priestly Blessing invokes God’s face shining upon us, and God’s face lifted unto us to give us peace.

So can we indeed see God’s face?

The Torah is elliptical, even elusive, but if we look closely, we can indeed see God’s face.  This opportunity is precisely how we are privileged to call ourselves the People of Israel.

The Torah describes Jacob returning from his exile in Haran, fearful of seeing his estranged brother Esau, whose wrath he’d fled 20 years ago.  The night before they meet, Jacob wrestles with an ish — is it a “man” or an angel, Jacob’s own conscience or God?  At the end of the tussle, Jacob demands the blessing of his opponent who changes Jacob’s name to Israel, the “struggler with God.”  Jacob then names that place “The face of God, for I have seen God face to face and my life has been spared.”

Jacob had seen the face of God.

Surely he was now ready to see the face of Esau, his long estranged brother.

The next day, when the brothers meet, they embrace, kiss and weep upon one another.  Jacob then introduces Esau to his family.  Esau then asks why Jacob had lavished him with so many gifts — scores of goats, sheep, camels, cows and asses — in an astonishing display of generosity to our ancestors’ agrarian society.  Esau demurs that he already possesses plenty, but Jacob insists.  Jacob says, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Who knew better than Jacob what the face of God might look like?  The night before, he had seen it.  The next day, he tells his brother that to see his face was like seeing the face of God!  It is a remarkable declaration, one that all of us should heed.

We can see the face of God.  When we see people behaving as God intended them to behave, “created in God’s image,” then we see God’s faces.  Note the plural “faces.”  In Hebrew, there is no word for “face” singular, only “faces” plural — panim.  Hebrew teaches us that we do not have a “face”; we have “faces.”  When we behave as God intends us to, we become some of God’s “faces.”  When we behave contrary to God’s intentions, we are not one of God’s faces.

For the Jewish people, we become some of God’s faces by the observance of the mitzvot.  Each one of us can be 613 different faces of God, mitzva by mitzva.  Multiply this by the opportunity, the responsibility, for all Jews to keep the mitzvot, then we alone possess the potential to create 14 million faces of God, each with 613 different faces of God.  But all humankind was created in God’s image, so every one of 7 billion people on earth can also become some of God’s faces.  Each face is like a snowflake, unique in its beauty.  Each face is like a fingerprint, leaving its unique imprint upon the world.

Imagine a world where we saw one of God’s myriad faces shining from every person.  Imagine a life where every person saw some of God’s faces shining from us.  This is the world for which God has created us.  People of Israel, this is the world well worth struggling for.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)