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The Face of G-d

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by Rabbi Simon Jacobson

 Intimate Secrets

There is something about this week’s Torah chapter that has always touched me in a very powerful way.

It contains perhaps the most intimate description you will ever find of a human being’s interaction with G-d. “G-d speaks to Moses face to face, just as a person speaks to a close friend” (Exodus 33:12). It may be the closest we will ever come to seeing a human being’s intimacy with G-d.

Moses had climbed Sinai to receive the Divine mandate called the Torah. Meanwhile the Jews down below, fearing that Moses would not return, build the Golden Calf. Moses descends with the Two Tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Upon seeing the people’s travesty, Moses shatters the tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Moses then returns to the mountain beseeching G-d for atonement. And here is where a most fascinating discussion ensues. With reservations not to sound too irreverent, the conversation between Moses and G-d is not simply one of creature and Creator, of servant and Master, of subject and Ruler; it is a conversation of love, intimate, even romantic.

Every aspect of this dialogue contains myriad of lessons how to face difficult situations and how to confront G-d, lessons that can be applied to mending all types of relationships.

Indeed, this week’s conversation between Moses and G-d teaches us the true nature of a healthy relationship, whether it is between you and G-d or between you and your beloved.

Moses begins immediately with total acknowledgment of the crime. “The people have committed a terrible sin by making a golden idol.”

Lesson #1: Total disclosure. Trust is built not on perfection but on accountability. When a mistake or a crime has occurred against your loved one, you don’t go into denial or cover-up of the crime. You don’t begin with excuses and explanations. You state plain and clear that a wrong has been committed.

Next Moses says: “Now, if you would, please forgive their sin.” After I have fully acknowledged their sin with no excuses, you can trust them to be accountable, and thus be worthy of your forgiveness.

Lesson #2: Courage to heal. Moses did not shrink away with guilt or fear after such a grave sin was transgressed. Once a serious grievance has occurred many people simply give up and feel hopeless. The opposite extreme of denial is resignation: the crime is so intense that it overcomes you with guilt and shame to the point of giving up. After acknowledgement must come the strength and conviction to heal.

Then Moses adds: “If not [and You don’t forgive them], You can erase me from the book that You have written.”

Lesson #3: Total dedication and sacrifice. As a true selfless leader Moses did not disassociate from the sinful people – something that he could have easily done being that he was not to blame for their sin. G-d even gave him the opportunity to build a new nation. However, in his great love for the people and total conviction that G-d loved the people, Moses does not take the easy course of running off. He stands up to G-d and brazenly states: “If You destroy them destroy me as well”!

Oh, how we could use such a leader today…

You would think that the communication ends at that point. If someone tried to convince you to pardon your betraying spouse the way Moses tried to convince G-d to forgive the Jews’ betrayal, would you continue the conversation?

But no. Not only does the conversation continue, it intensifies into one of the – if not the – most intimate conversations you will ever hear in your life.

G-d at first refuses to forgive the people. Moses then raises the ante:

“You told me to bring these people [to the Promised Land]…You also said that You know me by name and that I have found favor [‘chain’] in Your eyes. Now if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, allow me to know Your ways, so that I will know how to [continue] finding favor in Your eyes, and to ensure that this nation is Your people… Your presence [should]…accompany us.”

This elicits G-d’s response: “Since you have found favor in My eyes and I know you by name, I will also fulfill this request of yours.”

But Moses is not pacified; he wants and begs for more: “Please show me Your Glory.” To which G-d replies: “I will make all My good pass before you, and reveal the Divine Name in your presence…”

G-d then explains: “You cannot see My Presence, because a man cannot see me and exist. [But] I have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain. When My Glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the mountain, placing My hand over you until I pass by. I will then remove My hand and you will see My ‘back,’ and My face you will not see.”

G-d then tells Moses to carve another set of tablets upon which G-d would inscribe the same words that were on the first tablets. “be ready in the morning to climb Mount Sinai and stand waiting for Me on the mountain peak. No man may climb up with you, and no one else may appear on the entire mountain. Even the cattle and sheep may not graze near the mountain.”

G-d then revealed Himself as He “descended in a cloud and He stood there with him. He called out in G-d’s name. G-d passed by before [Moses] and proclaimed [the thirteen Divine attributes of compassion]: G-d, G-d, Omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous love and truth…”

As he hears the thirteen Divine attributes Moses bows his head and prostates himself, and says: If You are indeed pleased with me, O G-d, please go among us… Forgive our sins and errors and make us Your own.”

G-d then makes a covenant “before all your people and will do miracles that have never before been brought into existence in all the universe, among any nation… Be very careful… do not bow down to any other god, for G-d is known to demand exclusive worship.”

The end of the story is that after 80 days of prayer Moses does prevail and G-d grants complete pardon of the people on Yom Kippur, which thereafter becomes the holiest day of the year.

As cryptic as this conversation between Moses and G-d may be, several things are clear: The tone and language resounds with profound intimacy. If you did not know that this was a conversation between man and G-d it could very well be a romantic dialogue of love. Moses did indeed have a romance with G-d.

Another obvious fact is that Moses is not satisfied with just gaining Divine pardon; Moses uses this challenge as an opportunity to “dig” into G-d’s unique personality and G-d’s mysterious ways. Moses wants to go as far as he can to experience G-d’s Essence.

You would think that under the circumstances, with the people clearly guilty of a terrible crime, Moses would want to secure G-d’s forgiveness and get “out of there” as soon as possible. But no. Moses is absolutely confident in G-d’s love of the people, and is not satisfied with mere “damage control.” He realizes that the betrayal offers an unprecedented opportunity to access the deepest dimensions of G-d’s “being” so that we the people could forever after have an infinitely more profound relationship with G-d, one that would never break, one that could transcend every difficulty and thus provide us with eternal hope and confidence.

This provides us with several more vital lessons in relationship management.

Lesson #4: Grow and grow. A betrayal of trust must not suffice with regaining trust; it must become a catalyst to deepen the relationship. Getting back to square one is simply not enough; that would not redeem the pain and loss. Every challenge must lead us to a more profound love than the one we began with. We must use the opportunity to discover deeper bonds – bonds that could withstand the broken trust, because they reflect a love deeper than the betrayal.

Lesson #5: Never ever give up. True love is unconditional and eternal. When you are sure that you love your beloved and your beloved loves you, you never stop trying to repair any rift between the two. [Obviously, this should not be confused with obsession or infatuation, which may not always reflect a healthy, unconditional love. One may need an objective voice to help determine if the love is of the healthy or unhealthy sort]. Moses knew that G-d was not bound by any rules that would limit His love for the people. He knew that what he needs was to be absolutely honest in his plea for forgiveness, and he would prevail.

Lesson #6: Reciprocity. When you see that your beloved intimately knows your name [knowledge, “daas,” in Hebrew is related to intimacy], than you can ask in return: “allow me to know your ways, so that I will know how to [continue] finding favor in your eyes.” A relationship is about equality and reciprocity.

Lesson #7: Elicit recognition. When a relationship is challenged, it is critical to access the deep connection that exists between you and your beloved. Moses therefore tells G-d “You know me by name and that I have found favor in Your eyes.” “You know and recognize me like no one else does. You therefore know that I am here with my full sincerity and vulnerability, at your mercy. You, who knows me by name, please don’t forsake me.”

Lesson #8: Presence. A relationship is about being present. Your presence is with me, and my presence is with you. Being present doesn’t just mean showing up. It means that you are there with your complete self – invested entirely, more than anything else you are involved in. At work, for instance, part of you should be present, but it’s not healthy if all of you is immersed; you must always reserve part of your essence for a higher purpose. In a loving relationship your entire presence is necessary.

Lesson #9: See the face of your beloved. The fullest expression of love is when you see the “face” of your beloved. Face in Hebrew is “panim,” which also means “inside.” Moses, therefore, in his great longing for G-d, asks to see His face. Yet, no one can see G-d’s face and exist. Commentaries explain that G-d’s reply to Moses, “You will see My ‘back’ and My face you will not see” should be read as follows: “You will see My ‘back’ and My face, [but My face] you will see by not seeing.” The intimate essence of G-d can only be experienced (seen) by not looking, by not allowing your “self” to get in the way. As soon as you look, the defined you will not allow yourself to see G-d and exist. Only by suspending yourself in complete “bittul” and becoming a transparent channel can you then “see” G-d.

Lesson #10: Private moments. Presence also includes the need, at times, for total privacy, eliminating any distractions. As G-d tells Moses: “Stand waiting for Me on the mountain peak. No man may climb up with you, and no one else may appear on the entire mountain. Even the cattle and sheep may not graze near the mountain.” At this moment you need to seclude yourself with me in an oasis that frees you from all social and environmental forces, with no other people or nature around.

Lesson #11: Exclusivity. Finally, a true relationship is about exclusivity. “Do not bow down to any other god, for G-d is known to demand exclusive worship.” Not because of jealousy or control, but because love is all-encompassing, indivisible, uncompartmentalizable. A relationship with G-d must embrace G-d on His terms, not on ours. The Golden Calf is about worshipping a god on subjective, human terms. A god created by man in the human image, rather than G-d who created man in His Divine Image.

We were blessed to overhear the intimate conversation between Moses and G-d. We may not fully understand all its dimensions, but we can glean many lessons from their exchange.

Some of the lessons are mentioned above. Many more can be explored [I would love to hear any thoughts you may have]. Lessons can also be learned from the thirteen Divine attributes revealed to Moses in the process [to be discussed in a future article]. The key is to understand that the relationship between Moses and G-d can help us deal with all relationship issues, between you and yourself, between you and your loved ones, between you and G-d.

Many of us have grown up with the image of a G-d that sits mighty in heaven, detached, angry, full of wrath, waiting to punish us for our sins. If nothing else, this week’s dialogue between Moses and G-d dispels that myth, and teaches us that our relationship with G-d is far more complex, far subtler. It is a highly personal relationship, intimate in nature, and one that touches the very core of our being.

To quote Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Berditchev: The god you don’t believe in I too don’t believe in.

Perhaps our big challenge is to destroy our false gods and false images of G-d, and to allow ourselves to be introduced to the Real G-d: The one that speaks to your soul in the most intimate way.


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