Following the detailed instructions for the building of the Mishkan or tabernacle, Moshe goes up to the top of Mount Sinai to continue receiving the Torah from God. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the mountain, the Jews become worried and desperate that perhaps their leader will never reappear. They fashion a golden calf. Moshe returns to the people, breaks the tablets, destroys the idol, and has to appease God’s anger. He argues with God who wants to destroy his “stiff necked people”, and he pleads with God for another chance. The people are saved, and given a second set of tablets, written by the hand of God. Moshe returns to the encampment; but now he is glowing because he has seen God, “face to face”.
What is the significance of being “face to face” with God?
One explanation is given by Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, the Or Ha-Hayyim, who was a Kabbalistic commentator on the Torah. In his commentary he writes:
“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face: This means that in proportion to the preparation that Moses would make to meeting the Divine Presence, so would he perceive the face of the Supreme; for as much as a person prepares himself for the impact of sanctity, so does he receive it” (Or Ha-Hayyim, Exodus 33:10).
The Or Ha-Hayyim explains that holiness is proportional by the degree to which one prepares for it. Or perhaps in other words, it does not just happen by chance that we allow God into our lives and change our own level of Jewish commitment. It is through effort, hard work and real encounters and experiences. We can safely assume that Moses engaged in maximum preparation for that sanctity because God spoke to him face to face. If we want to develop the kind of meaningful relationships with one another in our own lives, that are rich in form and substance, then the face to face encounter is the best pathway to achieve that goal. If we want to engage in more spiritual, intellectual, educational or experiential opportunities, we have to make them happen. We need to make that personal commitment to “face” the challenges of taking on a more serious attitude toward our personal levels of commitment.
Another idea comes from a midrash about the bronze mirrors of the women that were offered to be used for the building of the Mishkan. At first, the women are refused because of the association between mirrors and vanity. However, later on God responds by telling the builders that these mirrors should be used in that they were significant in keeping the Jewish people alive. During the period of slavery in Egypt, the women used the mirrors to make sure that they were attractive to their husbands so that their husbands would want to continue to be intimate and have children.
We are fortunate to be living in a world where the tools of face to face communication are unbelievable. However, the “old fashioned” mirror is the only way that we can see our own faces. It is a tool which can be used either for vanity or self reflection. When we want to create relationships with others we need to look at them in the face. But in order to examine ourselves, we can only look into a mirror. For Moshe, that mirror was the face of God. For us, in order to let Judaism into our hearts and minds, we need to look into our own mirrors. And hopefully, God too will reflect back and shine his blessings upon us.