Face to Face

Parashat Ki Tisa tells us that "the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another." (Exodus 33:11) We also hear God telling Moses, "I have singled you out by name, and you have indeed gained My favor" (Exodus 33:12). In Numbers 12:8, God explains that only with Moses does communication occur "mouth to mouth." And the expression "face to face" (panim el panim) recurs in Deuteronomy 34:10, as both Moses’ life and the Torah reach their conclusion: "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face."

Face to face and mouth to mouth: Is this not the way in which each of us wants to be known and spoken to? The way in which we want to be acknowledged and loved? In its wisdom and purity, Judaism teaches that God cannot be confined to human categories. And yet the Torah speaks in the language of human beings, and it understands our yearning to apprehend God both directly and personally. As for the ways in which we need and apprehend one another, while being realistic about human nature’s propensity towards rivalry, our texts are full of meaningful personal encounters that convey mutual affirmation.

As modern modes of communication expand, human life gains scope, but it also comes under pressure. Everywhere we go, people are speaking to others across distances. Never before has it been so easy to be in contact with friends and relatives or to forge new connections with a potentially compatible strangers. Never before have the mechanics of life so supported our natural desire to stand at the nodal point of an extended network, our childhood fantasy of magically controlling others. And yet, at the core, we human beings remain as we have been for millennia, with much the same needs and aspirations. As we seek food and bodily protection, we also experience social needs that seem equally basic. Rooted in the bond between nurturing parent and suckling infant, there is within us a yearning not simply to have our bodily needs met in a trustworthy manner, but also to experience ourselves as confirmed and understood by another.

While the Torah and rabbinic interpretation stress the uniqueness of Moses’ relationship with God, I join Jews across the ages in being moved by the immediate, intimate terms in which this relationship is captured, as well as encouraged to reach toward such spiritual intimacy myself. I’m encouraged also to turn around the metaphor by modeling my way of relating to other persons on the unmediated communication of deity to prophet, "face to face, as one man speaks to another."

The Torah and our lives are full of less-than-perfect, hypermediated communication. Would that we could always express ourselves in plain, straightforward fashion — and that such expression served us well, rather than embroiling us in difficulties. As things stand with human nature, we often do better to be self-aware and thoughtful when speaking, as well as when listening. With maturity comes the bittersweet realization that perfect, wordless understanding is achieved only rarely and cannot serve as the day-in, day-out basis of relating to other people or God.

And yet, a continuing longing for such understanding still animates our lives, expressing itself in art, in sexual intimacy, in acts of lovingkindness and in prayer. Across the gulf that separates us, we strive — even if intermittently and imperfectly — to communicate face to face and mouth to mouth. We long to be "singled out by name" and "gain the favor" of those we care about.

As Martin Buber’s classic "I and Thou" helps us understand, not even a multitude of possessions, manipulations and self-seeking, instrumental relationships can satisfy this longing. And so, even as electronic marvels expand our productivity and our horizons, we need to go on listening for God’s voice and looking into the faces of our neighbors.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC