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Rabbi David Wolpe Headshot

Seeing God's Face

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In the Bible, we are warned that none can see the face of God. There is danger in God's exaltedness; to presume to look upon the Divine is to court destruction.

Yet at the end of the Bible, we are told that Moses saw God panim el panim -- face to face. How can such an encounter be both possible and impossible?

God says to Moses "You cannot see my face, for man may not see Me and live" (Exodus 33:20). Perhaps the message is that we grow gradually more intimate with God's face as we get older. When we glimpse as much as it is given to us as individuals to glimpse, we are through with our earthly mission. Moses died when he had at last seen God face to face. That is in some sense our task in life -- to see God truly according to our capacity. When we have fulfilled that task, we are through.

Some of us see God's face in the eyes of those whom we love. Others find it in the wonders of nature. Some see God in sacred books, or in ritual practices or in a mysterious but intense inner light. At different times in our lives all of these manifestations of God's face may appear to us.

The power of this image is the power of revelation. To be revealed, something must first be hidden. To seek God's face is to understand that the world wears many masks. We must peek behind the mask, try to see things truly, find the sacred that is often obscured by the flash and dazzle of superficial things.

How do we define the mission of our lives? Surely it is possible to imagine that we are here to see more and more of God's face. Even in the Bible that did not mean a tangible, describable countenance: one does not see God's nose and God's eyes. Rather it is how God is most powerfully manifest in this world. We cannot bear too much reality, as the poet Eliot wrote; we cannot fully absorb this world. God's face will always remains somewhat hidden.

Yet in Moses' legacy is our own beginning. Seeking sparks of the Divine is a lifelong quest. Gathering glimpses of God, collecting sacred moments like precious gems, is the noblest use of life. Until the time after death when, we pray, we shall see God in an entirely new way.