Friday, March 5, 2010

Ki Tissah - Shabbat Parah - Finding God's Presence

לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי--בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי;    אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ.
אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ, מִמֶּנִּי

In Your behalf, my heart says, "Seek My face!"  O Lord, I seek Your face.  Do not hide Your face from me...
                                                                                    Psalm 27:8-9

This morning, as I was passing the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, which stands at the corner of Wabash, Wacker, and East Wacker Place right across from our office, I looked up and saw a man wearing a large, black velvet kippah.  He was gazing down Wabash looking to see when the light would change, unaware that there was another fellow Jew on the opposite side of the street.  We passed each other and I said, "Shabbat Shalom!"  The man looked up, bewildered, and responded in kind.  I am sure he was surprised as this is not the intersection one would expect such a greeting. After all, this was not Jerusalem or Modiin but Chicago, across the street from the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist!  But in that moment, I saw Shabbat arriving and I felt a sense of kedushah - of holiness.  And I perceived something else: God's Glory. 

I often write about random encounters with people and the deeper meanings that emerge from those moments: the man who speaks no English and little Hebrew that I bump into in Jerusalem who asks me for directions and the sense of Jewish Peoplehood that emerges from that brief conversation; seeing a cat standing still when the siren is sounded at the beginning of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day in Israel) and feeling the true power of memory; and the unexpected discovery of great hachnassat orchim (welcoming of guests) that leads to conversation, friendship, and joint programming to name just a few.  Being attentive to the deeper meaning of what appear to be random encounters is important because in them lies the potential to see God's glory.

The Torah tells us that Moses is blessed with a unique relationship with God, one that he alone has.  God and Moses speak 

פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ

face to face as one friend speaks to another (Ki Tissa, Exodus 33). 

In our parashah, we are told that not only does Moses talk with God in person but that the nature of the relationship is warm and intimate, that of the closest of friends.  The uniqueness of the God-Moses relationship, its face-to-face nature, is reinforced at the end of the Torah in the last chapter of Sefer Dvarim.  

If the face-to-face relationship between God and Moses is singular, unique, where and how do we perceive God's Presence in this world?  And if we cannot see God's face, can we perceive God's Glory or כבוד?  Leaving aside what appears to be a contradiction about Moses ability to see God's face in our parashah, the Torah differentiates between God's Face, God's Glory, and God's Goodness.  Rather than seeing God's Face, God passes Goodness and Glory before Moses' face.  And while in this passage, Moses cannot see God's Face, God's Present, he is permitted to see God's Back, the results of the Divine Presence, as Aviva Zornberg notes, "What he sees is the aftermath of God's presence, its effects, what it sees in its wake."

Despite being taught here that humans cannot see the Divine Face for “if a person sees it he cannot live,” the author of Psalm 27 (noted above) is not deterred, expressing the eternal human pursuit of the same level of relationship with God that Moses had: friend and confidant, direct and not transcendent, personal and loved.  We want to see God’s Face, to know in the most unquestionable way of God’s love for us, to feel God standing next to us in moments of happiness and sadness.

But it seems that just as there were times when Moses was not permitted to see God’s Face but rather God’s Back, the result of God’s Presence, the knot of the tefillin and not the box itself (as we are taught in the Talmud, Berakhot), we too can find and feel the results of God’s passing before our covered faces in this world.  Despite all of the noise that prevents us from focusing - the traffic, the buzz of the Blackberry, the ding of the inbox when yet another e-mail arrives - we can discover, if we look hard enough, God’s Glory and Goodness in this world.  From the mundane to the profound, from the person who waits an extra second to hold the door open for us to the acquaintance we bump into after many years who takes time to say hello instead of just running off, we can experience the “tefillin knot,” the aftermath of God in this world.

Standing next to a door covered with an array of different colored moths, a person once said to me, “Do you know how I know that God exists? I know because these moths - some pink and yellow, some brown and camouflaged, some small, others enormous - exist...”  A random collection of flying insects brought this person to recognize God’s Glory in this world.  The random observation led to a longer conversation and a lifelong friendship, limited by distance and time, but constantly connecting to God’s Presence in this world.

If we are constantly seeking God’s face, where are we finding it?  Where are you finding it?  In the week to come, look for it in the seemingly random human interactions of the week.  I am sure you will find it.

Shabbat Shalom.

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