By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Torah columnist
Torah portion: Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11−34:35)
“G-d is near to all who call out” (Psalms 145:18) Inherent in the Psalmist’s theology is a desire to be close to G-d. So, how, then, might we imagine for ourselves a path to such nearness? Through prayer? That’s what first comes to mind. Via mitzvot? That works, too. How about building a mishkan, an dwelling place for G-d? Why not? But what else can we do? Consider, for a moment, the wisdom of a beautiful YouTube video by filmmaker Meir Kay.
A boy packs his backpack with Twinkies and apple juice and then tells his mom that he’s going out to find G-d. “Be home at 6 for dinner,” she says. The boy gets on the subway train and goes to a park. There he finds a woman, who is ostensibly poor and hungry, perhaps even homeless. The boy offers her the Twinkie and apple juice. The woman, somewhat surprised, accepts and laughs an appreciative laugh and then she offers the boy a smile–a warm, electric smile. Next, they sit on the park bench, enjoying each other’s company and the snacks. And in kindness, the boy reaches over to the woman and gives her a big hug and returns home.
Upon his arrival, the boy’s mother asks if he found G-d. The boy responds that G-d is a she, and she has the most beautiful smile he’s ever seen. At that point, the video returns to the woman from the park. She’s reconnecting with a hungry, impoverished, and maybe homeless companion, who greets the woman with a question: “Why are you in such a good mood?” And the woman answers: “I just ate Twinkies in the park with G-d. He’s much younger than I expected.”
For me, this sweet vignette is a powerful, imaginative expression of ָּpanim el panim, a concept we encounter in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. In Ex. 33:11, there is an impression among the people that G-d and Moses have conversations panim el panim, “as one person speaks to another.” This perspective seems to emanate from a deep, existential desire well-articulated in Martin Buber’s groundbreaking essay Ich und Du, or I and Thou (1923).
Whether it’s trying or not, I think Meir Kay’s video does a good job illustrating Buber’s complex thoughts. The boy interacts with two people, one his mother, and the other a woman, whom he experiences as G-d. Two conversations happen representing two very different realities for the main actors. One reality is what Buber would call “I-It.” The other he would name “I-Thou.”
The first interaction between the boy and his mother exemplifies an “I-It” moment, characterized by what we might likely call a typical communication between a parent and a child–when to be home for dinner. The boy, in this instance anyway, is simply the object of his mother’s caring concern, something very normal; for the boy, his mother is an object of his loving respect and authority, also a routine way of thinking. Both people coexist in an ordinary, discrete, and utilitarian way.
On the other hand, in stark contrast to this “I-It” experience is the ensuing “I-Thou” moment between the boy and the woman he meets in the park. Here, two people unknown to one another connect in a direct, immediate, and engaging way. They also transcend all the possible barriers we imagine might accompany such an ordinary moment between strangers, especially given how wary we are taught to be.
This mutual encounter, this shared G-d-awareness, this panim el panim experience, Buber might argue, flows from the essential form of the I-Thou relationship–between a human being and G-d, the Eternal Thou–a relationship that empowers the potential of I-Thou bonds between people (which in turn may be our most realistic and reliable conduit to G-d).
Buber would also instruct that G-d is constantly present in human consciousness, an awareness often manifest in music, literature, and other forms of culture–perhaps in a video fashioned around Twinkies and apple juice, as well as strangers and shared smiles…and in the sacred words of Torah, panim el panim. With that, let’s turn back to Ki Tisa.
Like our video, Ki Tisa is about growing close to G-d.. While our vignette indicates the relative ease with which two people come close enough to see the spark of Holy One in each other’s eyes, our parashah signals the challenges in growing near to G-d–in getting to panim el panim.
Ki Tisa is famous for (or should I say infamous for) the golden calf, and its impact on our spirituality. And throughout history, commentators have ascribed a variety of negative intentions to our ancestors and us, for that matter, all of which signal why we build golden calves that get in the way of our close connection with G-d: Idolatry. Stubbornness. Fear. Arrogance. Materialism. Narrow-mindedness. Prejudice. Hatred. Addiction. No faith at all. The list goes on.
But might there a different way to look at our historic responses to the golden calf, one that shows greater empathy, one that summons more hope? Well, consider the wisdom of another 20th-century sage, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who wrote about why our ancestors felt called to construct the golden calf:
They felt that they themselves did not have access to the Almighty. Only somebody of great charisma and ability could have access to him. The people sinned because they were perplexed. Moses has been gone for a long time…They did not understand that, while Moses was the greatest of all prophets and the greatest of all people, every Jew has access to G-d… Sometimes it is a sense of one’s greatness that causes sin; sometimes it is a sense of one’s smallness. (Vision and Leadership pg 131).
Here, Rav Soloveitchik teaches that we can sometimes be too humble for our own good. Yes, there are times in which we are simply dust and ashes. But there are also other times in which for our sake, as 18th-century Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pzhysha once said, “the world was created.” Or, in other words, no matter one’s status in society, all have the same capacity to draw near to G-d (Maimonides).
I think the young boy in our video understood this. He possessed a pure chutzpah. He wanted to connect with the Holy One, and so he just did so. Too often, we hold ourselves back because we have too little self-confidence that we can actually grow closer to G-d — that we can actually sit with G-d panim el panim. So when in doubt, the lesson here is: when you want to find G-d, just go for it.
But, then again, is it always so easy? Is seeking G-d just about chutzpah? We mustn’t forget what happens up on the mountain. There Moses reflects the people’s desire for a close encounter with the divine kind. That is because, it really hasn’t really happened yet. No doubt, the people’s G-d experience has been amazing — full of thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, and mind-bending, life-saving, slavery-slashing miracles. And yet, they still yearn for a palpable, imminent G-d, one that will dwell among them, guide them, and comfort them. For now, G-d still remains a mysterious, transcendent stranger, essentially the opposite of panim el panim.
The good news is that in Ex. 33, G-d seems willing to compromise some. After all, G-d gets closer to Moses, but only enough for the prophet to see the Holy One from behind. A direct view will be too overwhelming, no matter how badly the people want to see G-d. In the end, our capacity to cleave to G-d might just have its limits. And, maybe that’s ok.
Ultimately, we are not G-d, even if we are created betzelem Elohim, and in Judaism, G-d cannot be human. Torah indicates there’s going to be a space between. Moreover, as the tale of the golden calf cautions, just as we yearn for G-d’s proximity, we will also find ways in our vulnerability and inconsistency to erect barriers that widen the gap. And, even if we somehow encounter a direct I-Thou experience with the Holy One of Blessing and live to tell the tale, a wish I hope for all, talking about it afterward will be like remembering a really good dream, who’s purity disappears from consciousness the second we awaken and start trying to describe a peak moment with inadequate, I-It words.
Nonetheless, and despite these caveats, I still believe G-d remains constant in our lives. Torah unfolds daily as an ever-present sign of G-d’s love. The more Torah we live, the closer we approach G-d. And in the wisdom of our video and our modern sages, perhaps, when we look into the gaze of another soul and we see it as created betzelem Elohim, we discover our closest encounter with our eternal Thou, and perhaps for that fleeting, glorious and good-enough moment we witness G-d panim el panim.
Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation.