Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tissa 5764/ March 13, 2004


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




“Face to Face, Heart to Heart”


Dr. Yair Barkai




In the forty-seven verses from chapter 33, verse 10 until the end of the parasha the word panim, “face,” occurs in various forms about twenty-two times, in other words, in almost half the verses.   Thus, as a key word (also called leading-word or leitwort) in this section of the reading, “face” should be analyzed as to the direction it takes the reader in revealing the hidden levels of the latter part of the parasha.

Let take a moment to consider the subject of divine revelation to human beings.  From the emphasis in verse 11, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, [1] as one man speaks to another.  And he would then return to the camp,” we learn that the intimacy of the encounter between the Lord and Moses was unique to Moses.  This is evidenced by the explanation the Lord gave to Aaron and Miriam – “and He said, ‘Hear these My words:  When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household.   With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord,’” (Num. 12:6-8) – and by the description of Moses as the one “whom the Lord singled out, face to face” (Deut. 34:10).

The difference in Scriptures between the way G-d revealed Himself to Moses as opposed to His revelation to others, even the greatest prophets, is manifest in two primary characteristics:   G-d is there for Moses whenever Moses requested; His contact with Moses is unmediated.   Having said all this, we are surprised to read later on in this week’s Sidrah:

And He answered:  “I will make all My goodness pass before you [lit. before your face] … But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” … “and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of 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; but My face must not be seen.” (Ex. 33:19-23)

This passage indicates that G-d did not reveal Himself to Moses “face to face,” in apparent contradiction to the previous verses.   This seeming contradiction has been explained in many ways and we present some of the approaches here.

One way of reconciling the passages is by finding the many aspects of the word “face,” each aspect different from the next.   For example, the Sages in the Midrash  related to panim as referring to revelation of the Lord’s ways in directing His universe:  And He answered:  ‘I will make all My goodness pass…’ (Ex. 33:19); ‘But,’ He said, ‘you cannot see My face,’ (Ex. 33:20):  Moses sought to understand how good deeds are rewarded and how it is that the wicked go untroubled.   The Holy One, blessed be He, answered him, [you cannot see My face]” (Midrash Tanhuma, Buber ed., Ki-Tissa par. 16).  Moses sought to learn the secrets of directing the world, the solution to the problem that has troubled human beings since time immemorial – the question of reward and retribution – an understanding of divine justice.  Panim in this midrash is understood as the face worn by Divine Justice, which a human being cannot fathom.  We are fated to test our faith on the basis of our acknowledged lack of understanding of the Lord’s ways in running His world and relating to His creatures.

Indeed, Nahmanides maintained that the passage at hand cannot be understood except in terms of hidden meanings.   In his commentary on Exodus 33:14 he wrote:  “This passage cannot be properly appreciated by those who have not heard the hidden meaning (sod) of the Torah.”  According to his interpretation, panim represents the inner Torah, its secrets and mysteries.  Accordingly, the word ahoray, “My back,” which Moses was able to see,  means understanding the ways of the Lord that lie in the past, or the ability to contemplate His providence, as Or Hayyim comments:

With G-d Almighty one cannot speak of His having a face and a back; rather, the meaning is that all living things in the world wish to behold His light and His being, as the Lord of all living things; but this is impossible, for no creature can look at the radiance of the Almighty.   Hence the Lord prepared a veil through which one could look, and this is called ahorayim, “back side,” just as in His wisdom He made Man of [two parts,] the back side and the nefesh as his “face” or front, and the spirit as the “face” of the nefesh, and the neshamah (soul) as the “face” of the spirit; likewise He made a radiance of Himself, by which one could look and see G-d, calling this His back side, and the supreme light, which is beyond the comprehension of any living being, He called panim, or face.

Another attempt to resolve the contradictory verses can be found in Deuteronomy Rabbah (Lieberman ed., Parashat Ha’azinu, s.v. ha-tzur tamim po’alo):

The Rock! – His deeds are perfect; (Deut.32:4) Seek the Lord while He can be found (Is. 55:6).  Isaiah said, “Seek the Lord…”, and David said, “Turn to the Lord, to His might…” (Ps. 105:4). Why [does the text in Ps. continue: “seek] His presence ( panav) constantly”?  To teach you that the Holy One, blessed be He, sometimes makes Himself seen and sometimes not seen, sometimes hears and sometimes does not hear, sometimes is sought and sometimes is not sought, sometimes is present and sometimes is not present, sometimes is near and sometimes is not near.   How so?  He made Himself seen to Moses, as it is written, The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, then He became invisible to him again when he asked Him, Oh, let me behold Your Presence.

This is not so much a resolution as a statement of the reality: panim in the sense of Divine revelation to His creatures has as its opposite hester panim, G-d “hiding His face.” This idea occurs frequently in Jewish sources in the sense of the Holy One, blessed be He, not answering our prayers and not revealing Himself to the beings He created.

In the relationship between G-d and Moses, sometimes G-d conceals His face from Moses, as in “I will … shield you with My hand” (Ex. 33:22), and sometimes Moses hides his face so as not see the Lord:   “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at G-d” (Ex. 4:6).  This was noted by the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah, Vilna ed., Parasha 3,1 s.v va-yomer anokhi):

And Moses hid his face.   He said, With the G-d of my father standing here, how can I not hide my face?  Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah and Rabbi Hoshaiah [were conversing] and one of them said:   It was not good of Moses to hide his face, for had he not hidden his face the Holy One, blessed be He, would have shown him what is above and what is below, what went before and what would come in the future; and in the end he asked to see this, as it is said:   “Oh, let me behold Your Presence” (Ex. 33:18).  But then the Holy One, blessed be He, answered Moses:  I came to show [Myself to] you, and you hid your face; now I have this to say to you – man may not see Me and live – for when I sought to [show Myself], you did not wish it.  Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi:   Nevertheless, He showed him [Himself] as a reward, since Moses hid his face (Ex. 3:6); and the Lord would speak to Moses face to face… Rabbi Hoshaiah Rabbah said: It was good that he hid his face.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  I came to show you My face, and you paid me respect by hiding your face; by My word, you are destined to be on the mountain with Me for forty days and forty nights, neither eating nor drinking, and you are destined to enjoy the radiance of the Divine Presence, as it is said, “Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant” (Ex. 34:29).

Here, G-d hides His face in measure for measure with Moses’ behavior, who hid his face from G-d. Yet another meaning is given to the word panim in Exodus Rabbah (Vilna ed.) ch. 45, 2 s.v. mah ketiv:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  That is not what I stipulated with you.  When your face is angry, My face will assuage yours, and when My face is angry, your face will assuage mine.  Go back and return to the camp, as it is said:  the Lord would talk with Moses face to face.

In other words, this interpretation relates to a face of anger vs. a face showing grace; a reciprocal relationship between the Divine Presence being revealed and Moses showing his face [to G-d].

We conclude with Or Hahayyim’s interpretation of the phrase “face to face”:

The meaning is as follows:  in accordance with the degree to which Moses prepared himself to greet the Divine Presence, in like measure he would attain comprehension of the Supreme presence; for as a person prepares himself for sacred influence, so he attains.  The saying, “as one man speaks to another,” is explained according to our approach by the interpretation of the saying, “As face answers to face in water, so does one man’s heart to another” (Prov. 27:19):  for hearts secretly know whether to love or hate; for just as a person prepares his heart to love his fellow, so too, his fellow perceives whether to love him.  Thus it is said, “as one man speaks to another,” meaning that he will not love him if he does not prepare his heart to make him, too, his friend.   Likewise, G-d spoke “face to face.”   Hence a man can discern his standing with His Maker; if his heart yearns for the Lord and longs to worship Him, that is a sign that the Lord loves him.

From this we learn that in whatever fashion a person reveals his inner self to the Lord, in the same way the Lord reveals Himself to him.

[1] All emphases throughout the article are the author’s.