What do you do when you think you’re finally “in good with God”?
If you’re Moses, who’s been “dating God” (as it were) ever since the burning bush, but never even seen God’s face, you swallow hard, and say, “Let me know you,” meaning (gulp), “Can I see what you look like?”
God refuses. “No one can see my face and live,” (Exodus 33:20) God explains.
What could God mean? What is the face of God anyway?
Were we to see God’s face, Ramban explains, we would die, perhaps (according to Sforno) because of its blinding luminosity. We don’t even get to see the face before we die of doing so, Ramban continues; the minute we come close, our soul departs, leaving God’s face an eternal mystery.
Yet just a few verses earlier (33:11), God speaks to Moses “face to face, like two people talking together.” Doesn’t that mean that Moses looked God in the face, but didn’t die? No, says Or Hachayim. “Face to face” means, simply, “heart to heart.” We cannot see God’s face, but we can know God just as God knows us: through heartfelt love.
Contra Ramban, “No one can see my face and live,” does not actually say that seeing God’s face causes death. It says only that we cannot both (1) see God’s face, and (2) live. The sentence may simply mean that (1) seeing God’s face is impossible (2) even for living beings like ourselves. Whatever gifts life bestows upon us, seeing the divine is not one of them.
What we can see, however, is what Moses saw from his perch in the cleft of the rock: God’s “backside,” so to speak (34:23), the after-effect of God’s presence. It is as if God passes us by all the time, leaving signs of having been there, like initials of lovers carved into a tree: “AY loves BG,” perhaps, from which we know for certain that AY and BG were here, wrapped in mutual embrace or enraptured with a passionate kiss.
The analogy of love is especially apt. If God meets us “heart to heart,” the after-effect of God’s presence must be signs of love — and indeed, what Moses sees from the rock is precisely that: God’s so-called “thirteen attributes,” beginning, “God, God, compassionate and gracious…” To be sure, the attributes do end on a sour note: God confers punishment, and even visits the sins of one generation upon another. But that’s not how the Rabbis cited the passage in our liturgy, and we are rabbinic Jews. When we recite God’s attributes liturgically, we lop the last part off. The analogy to “AY loves BG” is perfect. God, too, is known by love.
Walt Whitman once said he had no need to see God’s face, because he saw it “each hour of the twenty-four…in the faces of men and women, and in my own face in a glass.” He found “letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.”
“You cannot see my face and live” is the Torah’s way of saying that human efforts to see God’s face are simply misplaced. As Maimonides says, there is no actual face to see. Following Maimonides, philosopher Roger Scruton reconceptualizes God’s face as just God’s point of view, the uniquely divine perspective of seeing all time, all space, all things, sub specie aeternitatis (in Spinoza’s words), “from the perspective of eternity.” If this is the face of God, no wonder we cannot see it. We cannot even fathom it.
Add to that the rabbinic lesson: God not only sees all things forever, but does so with love. We cannot see God’s face but we can emulate God’s example. We continually stretch our imagination to see whatever we can of “forever,” but meanwhile, in the “now,” we practice love, day in and day out, for we too want to leave our mark engraved upon the world, our own signed traces of our having been here.