What is the Face of God?

If there’s anything that everyone in our tradition agrees on, it’s the greatness of Moses. He literally ascended higher, and came closer to the Divine than any other Jew in memory. And yet even Moses himself, says the Torah, longed to be closer to God. Even Moses, it seems, couldn’t bridge a gulf between his very humanity and God. In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses goes before God on Mount Sinai after the Israelites commit the sin of the golden calf, and he utters the words “Har’eini na et k’vodecha,” “O, let me behold Your Glory, [God]!” Even there, at the heights of Sinai, Moses has the same basic longing and yearning for God that any of us might have. And God gives Moses a famous answer to his longing. God says, ‘Moses, I can make all my Goodness pass by you…”v’lo tuchal lir’ot et panai,” “[but] you cannot see my face, for man may not see my face and live. “ See, says God, there is a place near me. Station yourself on the rock, and as I pass by, I will put you in a cleft in 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, “ufanai lo yera’u,” “but my face must not be seen.”[i]

It’s a fascinating moment. What does it mean? Why can’t Moses, or any of us, ever see God? Why is it that we can’t see that Face and live? At first glance, God seems to be something very anthropomorphic in this story: God moves, God has a hand, God has a back. But the deeper we look into this astonishing moment, the more we realize that it is not just Moses in the cleft of that rock, peeking at God’s back just after God has passed by. It is each of us who can never quite see the Face of God, only God’s back.

There’s an old Jewish story: The Rav once asked his disciple, “[My son], what do we mean when we say ‘God?’ The disciple was silent. The Rav asked him a second time and a third time, and then inquired, “Why are you silent?” “Because I don’t know,” answered the disciple. “Do you think I know?” said the Rav. “All I can say is that God is definitely there, and except for God nothing is definitely there—and this [nothing], too, is God!”[ii]

The Rav in this story is saying something very interesting. He is saying, first, that everything is God. But even more profoundly, he is also saying that nothing—literally ‘nothing’—is God! Try for a moment to think about what the word ‘nothing’ actually means. Go ahead. Try it…You may think of empty space, a vacuum, a dark void. But none of those things are actually ‘nothing!’ They’re just images and concepts of places where things aren’t. True ‘nothingness’ is the absence of any reference point to any kind of “thing-ness” at all. Try to conceive of that! It can make your brain hurt.

The Magid of Mezeritch came close to capturing ‘nothingness’ when he taught: “[There is not a thing in this] world [that] can change from one reality into another, unless it first turns into nothing…the moment when the egg is no more and the chick is not yet is nothingness.” Similarly, a seed in the earth must cease to be a seed and become ‘nothing’ before it is a plant. This rung of ‘nothing,’ says the Magid, is the essence of all Reality just before the moment of Creation. It is also the rung from which all Wisdom springs.[iii]

Notice that when the Magid talks about nothingness, he isn’t talking about nothingness in space. He’s talking about nothingness in development, in becoming one thing transforming into another. He’s talking about nothingness in time. Nothingness is a moment when there is no egg and no chick, no seed and no plant. Nothingness is a fleeting instant, a wisp of time so infinitesimally small, that we can’t perceive it. When we understand nothingness in time, then we can begin to grasp why man cannot see the Face of God and live.

The Hatam Sofer, a rabbi of the early 19th century, explains that God’s “back” in our biblical story is a metaphor for the past. If you want to find God, look back at your life, at the past, at all the goodness God has done, and you’ll find that God has acted in your life. It’s a beautiful teaching, and it’s true, of course. But the story goes even deeper than that. The Ultimate Truth is that the Face of God is actually looking right at you, right now. Literally! It’s just that you can’t perceive that Face at all. That Face of God has another name. It’s called The Present Moment. Let’s try an experiment: what do you see right now in the Present Moment? You see this room. You see me. You might see the objects or people directly in front of you. But none of that is actually the Present Moment. You can try to be as absolutely present as you can be, and still none of that is the Present Moment. Actually, the best you can possibly do is perceive a split second ago—in the past! And we can’t help it: our brains are amazing organs that process sensory input in the flash of an instant—at the speed of electrical signals transmitting from our sense organs to our neurons. And yet, for all the speed of our mental processes, by the time we create a coherent picture of the present moment, the moment itself has passed! So when we perceive the Present Moment, we’re actually looking at a split second ago! In every moment, we’re looking at the past! To put it another way, all we ever see is God’s back!

And what is, then, the actual Present Moment? No one ultimately knows! Not a single human being, not even Moses himself, has ever seen that ever-present moment between the chicken and the egg, that Face of God, and lived. It is ‘nothing’ that we can ever see in its raw, emerging, Reality. It’s ineffable. It’s time-less. It is of God, and beyond us! But remember what the Torah says: we might not ever be able to see it and live, but it’s good! In fact, it’s Tov Me’od, it’s very good. The Kotzker rebbe taught: “Everyting puzzling and confused that people see is called ‘God’s back.’ But no man can see God’s face, where everything is in harmony.” [iv]

There’s a story told of the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Hasidism. He was so great, that he would regularly visit and converse with none other than Elijah the Prophet. His disciples begged him to show them what it was like to visit with Elijah. But the Baal Shem Tov always seemed reluctant. One day, the Baal Shem Tov was walking with his disciples down the road. As they walked, the Baal Shem Tov said, “I would like to smoke a pipe, but I forgot to bring mine. Do any of you have one that I can borrow?” None of the disciples had a pipe. Just then, a Polish squire was walking toward them on the road. The Baal Shem Tov bid his disciples to go and ask the squire if he wouldn’t mind lending him his pipe. Now, it wasn’t the custom for non-Jews to have much of anything to do with Jews, but as it turned out, this was a pleasant Polish fellow, and he agreed to share his pipe. He even offered to go over to the great Rebbe and light the pipe for him. As the Besht smoked, he struck up a conversation with the squire. He made small talk: asking how the harvest was going, and whether the threshing houses were yielding much grain. The disciples grew bored and impatient and wandered away while the Best schmoozed and smoked. When the disciples returned, the squire had left. “There,” said the Best, “You finally got your wish. That squire was Elijah the Prophet.” “What?!” said his disciples. “And you didn’t tell us?!” “And if you hadn’t ignored him,” the Besht continued, “you would have understood the two questions I asked him. When I inquired about the year’s harvest, I was asking if the people had finally turned their souls to heaven. When I asked about the yield of grain, I was asking if the depth of our prayers were succeeding in bringing down God’s blessings.” “So, nu?” asked his disciples, “What did Elijah say?!” “He said what he said,” was the Baal Shem Tov’s only response.[v]

It’s so frustrating, isn’t it? We can’t all be the Baal Shem Tov. We can’t notice the miracle even as it’s standing right in front of us. We can’t all take in the Divine wisdom that is always here, now for us. We always seem just to miss it—just as the disciples missed Elijah standing right there before them. It seems that the best most of us can hope for us to look at God’s back. But that’s not the end of the story in the Torah. When God does pass by Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses sees God’s back, something extraordinary is revealed to Moses. And that revelation is so beautiful and powerful, that it is enshrined in our liturgy in all our festivals: “Adonai Adonai El Rachum v’Chanun, Erech Apayim, v’Rav Chesed v’Emet,” “Adonai, Adonai, God of Mercy and Graciousness, Slow to Anger, and abounding in Kindness and Truth.” These are the ‘Shalosh Esrei Midot,’ the Thirteen Divine Attributes of God that Moses could find by seeing God passing by. Remember: Moses could come closer to that ineffable moment than any other human being, and what he heard was God’s goodness, God’s infinite compassion and kindness and Truth. Not even Moses could see or fully grasp that fleeting Present Moment as it passed, but he saw enough to know that whatever it is, it is Good! It is the greatest Good, the greatest Kindness and Love we can ever know. And so, when he looked and saw God’s back, when he saw his past, and the past story of the Jewish people, through the years of slavery and Redemption up to that moment: all he could see was a succession of ineffable, magnificent Present Moments, all giving infinite goodness and compassion and kindness to enable all things to be and to become.

And this is why the Baal Shem Tov couldn’t say what Elijah told him. All he could say was that Elijah “said what he said.” It’s like what God said to Moses at the burning bush: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” I am that I am. You can’t take the Present Moment, that is such joy, such kindness, such goodness, and put it into any kind of words. Just look deeply into what you can see of your life: look beyond all your fears and doubts and hurts and pain—look past all your ‘puzzlement and confusion,’ as the Kotzker said: look into this moment that has already slipped away even as you notice it: look how beautiful it is. Many of us look back on the moments of our lives and string together a narrative of hurt and victimization. We never even notice that behind each moment of our perception, there was an infinitely deep well-spring of lovingkindness and caring giving us our world, our relationships, our sustenance, our very life-breath itself. Most of us look at our world, and back at our lives, and we can only see our own faces, our own interpretation of our experiences. Most of us can’t see past our own faces, and seek out the Face of God. But that Face is always there, loving us between the hidden wisps of time, in the transient blink of an eye, in the inchoate moment as one breath gives way to another, in the instant between life ending and life beginning—in the moment that doubt gives way to Faith. May we indeed find the Faith within that God’s Face is always here in this miraculous life that is being renewed for us in each instant. May we feel the warm Light of God’s face shining on us even if we don’t directly see it, and indeed may that Light, that Wisdom, that Compassion grant us all Peace.



[i] Exodus 33:18-23

[ii] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. New York. Schocken Books, 1947. p. 269.

[iii] Ibid, p. 104

[iv] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Late Masters. New York, Schocken Books. 1948. p. 275.

[v] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales. Woodstock, VT. Skylight Illuminations, 2004. p. 87.

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