This week we're in parashat Ki Tisa. The parsha includes the episode of the golden calf, when the people become anxious because Moshe has been gone for so long and they ask Aaron to make them a god who can go before them. First God becomes angry, and Moshe talks him down. Then Moshe comes down the mountain and becomes angry himself, and smashes the tablets which God had inscribed. (That's what gave rise to the Torah poem I wrote for this parsha back in 2009, Re-entry -- now available in print, in a revised form, as part of 70 faces.)
But the story doesn't end there. Moshe calls the Levites to help him quell the spiritual rebellion; the people go into mourning for their broken relationship with God; we learn about the pillar of cloud which would descend when Moshe entered the Tent of Meeting; and then Moshe makes a peculiar request of God -- he asks to see God's face. God responds, "I will make My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim My name before you...but you cannot see My face, for man cannot see My face and live." Instead, God offers an alternate suggestion: you stand in this cleft on the rock, and I will shield you with My hand, and after I've passed by, you'll be able to see My back. (That's at the end of Exodus 33.)
Jewish tradition interprets these verses the way we interpret all anthropomorphic descriptions of God in Torah -- as metaphor. God doesn't really have a face, nor a hand with which to shelter Moshe in the cleft of the rock, nor a back which Moshe might glimpse as God departs. These are human conceptions. We can't wrap our minds around the reality of what God is, so we mentally create God in an image we can understand. (That's the subject of a lovely teaching on this passage, The Knot of God's Tefillin, which is Chanan Morrison's rendering of Rav Kook's teaching on this passage.)
I can relate to Moshe's request. It makes sense to me that he yearned for this kind of encounter. He wanted to encounter God panim el panim, face to face, presence to presence. He wanted a radical I/Thou connection with God -- and who could blame him? Instead, what he gets is a partial glimpse of a totality too great for him to comprehend.
Moshe can't grasp the wholeness of God from within the limited perspective of a single human mind. If he were to encounter all of what God is, his individual selfhood would disappear; the orderly limits of his mind would shatter. God gives Moshe only what he can handle. He can see God's goodness. He can listen to the recitation of one of God's names, which contains compassion and mercy along with remembrance of our misdeeds. And he can glimpse something of the divine Presence as it passes him by.
I don't think this passage is only about Moshe. I think it speaks to us, too. Where can we see God's goodness manifest? What are the names of God which we receive on the frequencies to which we are attuned? What afterimage of God's presence, as it were, are we able to perceive in the world around us?
At the very end of the portion, we learn that when Moshe came down from Sinai he was literally radiant, and the people were afraid, and every time he went to connect wth God he had to veil his radiance so he wouldn't overwhelm everyone. Have you ever had a spiritual encounter, or an experience of prayer, which left you glowing? How do you "veil" your light so as not to overwhelm those around you -- and what do you think might happen if instead you cultivated that light and allowed it to shine?