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Ki-Tissa. Face to Face with God

March 9, 2020

Can you meet God face to face?

Yes you can!

Our parsha focuses on God’s face and Moshe’s face. The word ‎פנים\פני‎ ‎appears 20 times, more than any other word, in this passage.‎


And here we encounter a certain paradox:


On the one hand:


The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another. (Ex. 33:11)


On the other hand:


[Moses] said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” 

God answered …“you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” 

And the Lord said, “as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away

and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (33:20-21)


This is confusing. Moses can speak to God face to face (audio) but cannot see God’s face (visual).


Please discuss:

  • What does it mean to look someone in the face?

  • Why might one be restricted from seeing the face of another?

  • Why might Moses be permitted to see God’s back and not His face? (What is the difference?)

  • How would you differentiate between audio communication and in-person, visual communication?

At the close of the parasha, the Torah describes the three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Again, it revisits the notion of God's face:


Three times a year all your males shall appear before the face of the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel. (34:)


In other words, all Israel will appear before God’s face three times a year, at the Temple!


Rabbi Prof. Joshua Berman discovered ‎striking parallels between the Torah’s laws, and the ancient legal texts written at the times when the Torah is given. He contends that the Torah uses societal ‎metaphors to express the nature of the human-God encounter. Here is what he writes.


‎“We saw … the treaty with the subordinate king Sunashshura, in which he was obligated to “come ‎before His Majesty and look upon the face of His Majesty.” Again, the visit of Sunashshura is a state ‎visit replete with honor… a ‎formal court appearance is referred to throughout the Bible as well as an act of “looking upon his ‎face.”‎


Yet precisely this language is used with regard to the common Israelite’s obligations with respect to ‎God. We find it, for example, in the stipulations of the covenant narrative of Exodus. “Three times a ‎year,” we read, “all of your males shall be seen by the face of the Lord”(Ex. 34:23)—referring to the ‎duty to make a pilgrimage to the central shrine of Israelite worship. Nearly ubiquitous throughout the ‎Bible is the notion that God may not be seen by mortals. Were they actually to behold God, they ‎would die.


‎…Yet when seen in the context of the Hittite treaties, the meaning is clarified. The command that each ‎Israelite male make a pilgrimage is patterned after the requirement that a subordinate king visit the ‎court of his sovereign, to “look upon the face of his majesty.” What is most instructive here is that this ‎is enjoined upon all adult males—whereas in the Hittite political treaties, only the subordinate king is ‎called upon to visit the sovereign. Indeed, it would be beneath the dignity of the sovereign to receive ‎all of the commoners subject to the subordinate king.‎


‎…By recasting the encounter between man and God as a covenant modeled on the political treaties of ‎the surrounding world, the Bible articulated a relationship in which honor could be reciprocally ‎bestowed between God and the common man of Israel, enacting thereby a reformulation of social ‎and political thought of great proportion. The common man was transformed, perhaps for the first ‎time in human history, from a mere servant of kings to nothing less than a servant-king, who stood in ‎honor before the Almighty Sovereign. This elevation of the individual in the eyes of God may well ‎represent the most profound political teaching, and most lasting political legacy, of the Hebrew Bible.”


Please discuss:

  • According to ancient Hittite documents, what is the importance of “looking upon the face” of a king?

  • Who gets to “look upon” the kings face

Prof. Berman teaches that on a Holiday each man has an audience with God. In this way, each of us function as a king. We do not have our king represent us before God, Each man himself stands before God and encounters Him.

  • Prof Berman says that this might be the “most profound teaching” of the Bible. Why?

Shabbat Shalom!

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