What would you do if God were to suddenly appear before you? How would you react: would you bow low or stand straight? Look directly at the Almighty or divert your eyes?
The Bible recounts how Adam and Abraham conversed with God and how Jacob experienced the Almighty in his dreams and when wrestling. Moses at the burning bush, however, is the first biblical hero to encounter God in such a dramatic scene (Exodus 3:1).
While herding the sheep of his father-in-law, Moses was lured by a strange sight - a bush that was burning though not being consumed by the fire. Enchanted, Moses drew closer to investigate. At that moment he heard his name being called, as God identified Himself.
What was Moses's response when faced with such an intense divine experience? Scripture tells us: "Moses concealed his face, for he was afraid to look upon God" (Exodus 3:6).
Our sages are divided as to whether God appreciated Moses's reaction or felt that Moses erred (B. Berachot 7a; Shemot Rabba 3:1).
According to some of the sages, Moses's response was fitting, as if to exclaim: "The God of my fathers is standing here and I won't hide my face?!" This approach goes further, identifying the reward Moses was granted for averting his eyes. Later in the Bible, God's interaction with Moses is described as "face to face, as a person would speak to his neighbor" (Exodus 33:11). The sages note that in the merit of hiding his face, Moses merited conversing with God face-to-face. In context, it was this habitual face-to-face relationship that allowed Moses to plead before God and gain forgiveness for Israel's crime at Sinai with the Golden Calf.
Indeed, seeing God face-to-face is no insignificant matter; after Jacob wrestled with the messenger of God, he was surprised to have survived such an intimate and direct encounter with the divine, a meeting he describes with the words: "I have seen God face-to-face and my life has been saved" (Genesis 32:31).
Another sage suggests that Moses was rewarded for hiding his face by being granted a unique glowing countenance. Also playing on the word "face," he cites the verse: "that the skin of Moses's face radiated" (Exodus 34:35), such that he would speak to the Jewish people through a veil, removing it only when he would interact with God.
A third approach to the reward for Moses covering his face focuses on each detail of the verse describing Moses's reaction, finding a scriptural parallel for each phrase. In the merit of concealing his face, Moses was granted a shining countenance; for emoting awe at this encounter with God, the Jewish people were afraid to approach Moses as his face radiated; and for voluntarily averting his gaze, Moses was permitted to see the image of God (Numbers 12:8).
The sum of these different renditions is that Moses acted aptly when he chose not to look upon God, despite being afforded the opportunity, and for this course he was granted a suitable reward.
Our tradition also records an entirely different line that faults Moses for averting his eyes, describing Moses's course as mistaken.
God presented the future leader of the Jewish people with a golden opportunity for beholding the divine. Instead of taking advantage of this prospect to understand temporal existence, Moses chose to hide his face.
However, the price of Moses's blunder did not end with his face in his hands. Later, when Moses beseeched God, "Show me Your glory" (Exodus 33:18), God refused his servant's request. The sages give voice to God responding to Moses's request: "I came to let you experience the divine, and you hid your face, declining the opportunity. Now that you want to perceive godliness, I say to you that 'no person can see Me and live' (Exodus 22:20)."
Although this response may be understood, it paints a vengeful, perhaps even childish, portrait of God. As if the Almighty was bitterly saying: "You missed your chance." This is especially difficult to stomach given that, on one hand, we are instructed to walk in God's ways (Deuteronomy 28:9) and yet on the other hand we are commanded to steer clear of revenge or even of retaining anger or harboring a grudge (Leviticus 19:18).
At least according to one rabbinic redaction of this approach, God's response need not be cast in a rancorous light. God was not retaliating against Moses for his hesitation and reluctance at that first meeting. Rather, God's refusal to reveal His mystique was grounded in the new post-Golden Calf reality. As if God was saying: "I wanted to reveal all, but now I cannot be fully perceived by people. The opportunity for purity of vision has passed and now no person can see Me and continue living a physical existence." This explanation presents a powerful lesson. Windows of opportunity regularly open before us. We choose whether to make the most of such prospects or whether to continue on our current path. It is also important to bear in mind that such windows also close, and the portholes into other realms, once a viable prospect, may be sealed.
Perhaps this lies behind Hillel's adage: "Do not say - 'When I will have free time, then I will study,' lest you do not have free time" (M. Avot 2:4 and parallels). When one is presented with the chance to delve into the texts of our heritage, Hillel advises that this opportunity not be squandered.
It is noteworthy that Hillel does not base his dictum on the notion that our tradition contains a wealth of precious jewels that can augment and enhance our lives. Rather, Hillel advocates an immediate encounter with Torah for fear that this window of opportunity may slip away.
Chances present themselves before us daily. Just as quickly, the gates to new realities close and possibilities disappear. Our sages are cautioning against hiding our faces when such opportunities present themselves, lest we miss the chance to encounter the divine face to face.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.