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Torah Commentary
Ki Tisa (March 10, 2012)

Rabbi Yael Shmilovitz,
Program Director,
Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El

MOSES WANTS TO see God’s face.

He really wants to see God’s face.

“Please, let me see it,” he beseeches, ”let me see your Glory!” But it cannot be. “Man may not see Me and live,” replies God and, in an enormously compassionate gesture, instructs Moses to hide in the cleft of a rock, shielding him with his Godly hand as He passes by. God then removes his hand, allowing Moses to see his back.

Lo Yireni ha-adam v’chai. “Man may not see Me and live.” What could it mean?

The Midrash provides one possible answer: “Rabbi Dosa says, ‘Man may not see Me and live,’ meaning that [humans] cannot see God when they are alive. But they do see God at the hour of their death.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah Parashah 14)

We can’t see God now, but we will be able to see God at the time of our death. Why? What is it about our dying hour that makes it so uniquely different than the rest of our lives?

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who changed the way we look at death in her iconic book On Death and Dying, had a few things to say about death. “It is almost identical to the experience at birth,” she said. “It is a birth into a different existence.”

Consider her account, comprised of a lifetime of talking to dying patients and people who have had near-death experiences, of what happens after one dies:

After we pass through this visually very beautiful and individually appropriate form of transition, say the tunnel, we are approaching a source of light that many of our patients describe and that I myself experienced in the form of an incredibly beautiful and unforgettable life-changing experience. This is called cosmic consciousness. In the presence of this light, which most people in our western hemisphere called Christ or God, or love, or light, we are surrounded by total and absolute unconditional love, understanding, and compassion. (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Life After Death)

Humans cannot see God when they are alive. But they do see God at the hour of their death.

Death is the most spiritually potent time of life. Sounds counterintuitive? Perhaps it is.

Moses wants to see God’s face, but it is not yet time. Still very much a living being, a being that exists within the limiting bounds of human form, Moses — through his human consciousness — cannot yet fathom the cosmic consciousness that we call God. For the time being, he is left with the sight of God’s back — a distant vision, an internal voice, a great knowing hidden in the caverns of his memory, that there is something else, completely other, still to come.

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