Divine Gaze

After the fiasco of the golden calf, a resentful God said to the pleading Moses: You cannot see my face, for no one can see my face and live (Exodus 33:20). So says one ancient story teller:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah that the Holy One spoke to Moses this way:  When I wanted you to look, you did not want to. Now that you want to, I do not want it.

Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua imagined that God had been brooding ever since Moses hid his face from the burning bush (Exodus 3:3).  How could Moses snub an invitation to encounter God face to face?

Rabbi Shemuel disagreed with Rabbi Yehoshua. He insisted that Moses had acted correctly by hiding his face from the burning bush. In fact, the Torah records three rewards for Moses’ act of hiding his face, one reward for each aspect of reverence captured in Exodus 3:6—And Moses hid his face/ for he was afraid/ to look at God. One word in each part of that verse tallies with each reward:

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nahmani taught in the name of Rabbi Yonatan:  As a reward for three acts Moses merited three things. As a reward for ‘Moses hid/va-yaster his face’ (Exodus 3:6), Moses merited a radiant face/k’laster after being in God’s presence on Sinai. As a reward for ‘he was afraid/yarei (Exodus 3:6), Moses merited that the people were ‘afraid/yire-u to approach him’ when he came down from the mountain, his face aglow (Exodus 34:30). As a reward for ‘Moses specifically being afraid to look/mei-ha-beet at God’ (Exodus 3:6), he merited ‘seeing/ya-beet the likeness of the Lord’ (Numbers 12:8).

(Click here for Talmud story in Hebrew and English)

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, brings another voice to the conversation. Amichai agrees that Moses should not have hidden his face. But the poet tells the story of Moses’ regret, not God’s. True, Moses was commanded to stand his distance and shed his sandals. But it was Moses’ own idea to hide his face. From that moment on, says the poet, it was regret that propelled the career of Moses.

Moses, our teacher, only once saw the face of God
and forgot. He did not want to see the wilderness
not even the promised land, but only the face of God.
He struck the rock in the fury of his longings
he went up and down Mt. Sinai, he shattered the two
tablets of the covenant and made a golden calf, he searched
in fire and cloud. But he remembered only
the strong hand of God and his outstretched arm
not his face and he was like someone who wants
to remember the face of a loved one but cannot.
He made himself a police sketch from the face
of God and from the burning bush and from the face
of Pharaoh’s daughter who leaned over him when he was an infant in the basket,
and he distributed the picture to all the tribes of Israel
and throughout the wilderness. But no one had seen
and no one recognized. And only at the end of his life,
on Mt. Nebo did he see and die
with a kiss from God’s face.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

For Amichai, Moses’ career was drawn taut between only once seeing the face of God at the burning bush and only at the end of his life seeing it, again. The Torah records the outer story of Moses’ inner quest. It was a personal search that impelled him up the mountain. With dashed hopes of seeing God’s face again, he shattered the tablets he had gotten there. The poet even imagines that the shattered Moses made his own golden calf to try and give shape to his dim memory. But Moses could not neither sculpt nor draw on memories of the face that he was not permitted to see on the mountain.

You cannot see my face, God said to a pleading Moses who climbed the mountain one more time. For Rabbi Yehoshua, this was God’s rebuke; for Amichai, it was Moses’ disappointment. The poet goes on to say that with the second half of the verse, Moses’ search came to an end:  no one can see my face and live. And so it was that only at the end of his life, on Mt. Nebo did he see and die with a kiss from God’s face.


This entry was posted in Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Talmud. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Divine Gaze

  1. Mark Andre says:

    In the story of the four who entered Pardes, wasn’t Akiva the only one who did NOT look that was able to depart in peace? Since we are people with bodies, we tend to understand reality in terms of our bodies, endlessly creating metaphors which are rooted in an embodied consciousness, so we cannot help attributing human-like characteristics to The Holy One. Usually when we read the word ‘face’, we envision the part of our head with the eyes, nose and mouth – but I noticed when pondering this text that the word ‘face’ seems to be a form of the word ‘sur-face’ in the English language. I am not versed in Hebrew, but the fact that The Holy One is not bounded with a surface membrane differentiating it from an ‘other’, would seem to suggest that it may not even be possible to sensually encounter The Holy One’s surface, except through a veil of some kind or another, perhaps the burning bush?

  2. David Weiner says:

    Moses seeing God ‘face to face’ sounds like a very physical experience… to Amichai’s mind a unique physical experience with which no one else can identify. On some level, I understand the yearning for connection or the regret for a missed opportunity. However, together with ‘all the tribes of Israel’, apparently, I find the idea of ‘seeing God’s face’ hard to access. How might the idiom of ‘God’s face’ play out in contemporary language?

  3. irwin weiss says:

    This is a very nice drash, and fits well for today’s Parsha (Ki Tissa). Remember also, that when Moshe died, per the text, he died “Al Pi Hashem” — some translating this as “With a kiss from Hashem’s mouth.” Rashi, among others comments on this. Perhaps there, Moshe did look?
    Anyway, this was a beautiful comparison of Torah, Talmud, and modern writings all carrying through on the same theme.

  4. Dr. Diane Sasson wrote that she “was intrigued by Amichai’s poem, especially the notion that Moses created a ‘police sketch’ (is he searching for a God who has committed a crime or does he just mean a sketch created from reported sightings?) and that his sketch is based on the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter.” These images suggest to her that God is found in surprising places–in the face of someone who is “other,” outside the tribe and female to boot, as well as in the non-human. Dr. Sasson reasons that God’s face is not some projection of Moses’ own face, but something entirely other; only when Moses gives up his physical embodiment (male, Hebrew, a man of a certain time and place) does he see the face of God.

    In response, I would say that Amichai loves to close the distance between centuries with a word and an image. A police sketch/composite drawing is a whimsical, witty move that involves a Greek word that became Hebrew in several different strata of the language: “krustallos,” became “klaster,” meaning “bright features,” “shiny face,” even “physiognomy.” In very contemporary Hebrew, a “composite sketch,” a “police sketch,” an “identity kit” is called a “klasteron.” This image and word that Amichai selects also doubles back to tally (serendipitously?) with one part of the talmud dialogue that I cite about whether Moses should or should not have looked. One of the rewards adduced to prove that Moses did the right thing by looking says that the act of ya-yaster et panav earned him klaster panav. Amichai does not engage this talmudic opinion, per se, although he weighs in on its theme, makes use of its scene and summons up this image and word that leave you wondering whether the appearance of klasteron/police sketch is just whimsy and happenstance or whether it reflects deep immersion in the ancient sources and a purposeful entrance into the inter-generational conversation!

  5. Mark Andre says:

    re : Irwin Weiss’ contribution:
    I have always been struck by the fact that Moshe’s communication with The Holy One is often translated, “mouth to mouth”. Since my understanding of the Hebrew notion of voice is that of breath, this ‘soul kiss’ between Moshe and The Holy One leaves no room for misinterpretation, what Nietzche called “the eternal misunderstanding”, since the vibration/voice does not mingle with the air and ambient noise around them, and does not travel through the ear canal to be interpreted still further by the brain. Since Bereshit quite early in the Torah has not an anthropomorphic God strolling through the garden, but “the voice of God walking in the breeze” who calls after Adam, there is some parallel that the face (the sur-face) of The Holy One is not actually ‘seen’ by the refraction/reflection of light and shadow upon the eye. Something else is happening. When Moshe begs for a glimpse of The Face, he is shown the ‘back’ of God – I think the Hebrew even suggests that this back is not really a presence to be beheld, but a former presence, an absence that somehow leaves a trace for Moshe to ‘see’. I am reminded of that wonderful passage in “The Lonely Man of Faith” of The Holy One trailing us, only to vanish when we turn around to see Who is there.

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