The Limitations of our Sight (Ki Tissa)

This Torah portion, Ki Tissa, makes for a fantastic dramatic television series. God continues to command the building of the tabernacles. Moses is on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days. The Israelites complain to Aaron that Moses has abandoned them. Aaron convinces them to build the golden calf. Moses throws the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments off of the mountain ... and all of that would be just the first episode!

Following all of this, Moses needs some re-assurance from God: If I've found favor in your eyes, make your way known to me, so that I may know you ... Show me your glory. (Exodus 33 12-18)

God then says, You can't see my face, because a human can not see me and live.

What might this mean, that none of us are able to see God's face?

Rashi explains that it is a matter of authority and permission. Just after this, God makes all of God's goodness pass before Moses, but according to Rashi, God does not allow Moses to see God's face.

But another commentator, S'forno, has a different take, written from God's perspective: Your inability to see what you would like to see is not due to My depriving you, personally, of such an experience, but is rooted in man’s inability to see such things unless you had died first, as an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things. You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you would see.

According to S'forno, then, despite our curiosity, desire, work ethic, scrupulousness, or holiness, it is simply beyond our humanity to see God's face.


Some may find this teaching disappointing or even distressing, but I find it inspiring. Because this text serves as a reminder that there are limits to what we can do. Put another way, S'forno teaches us that there will always be a gap between our lofty human desires on the one hand, and our actual achievements on the other. I interpret S'forno as telling that sometimes, you need to give yourself a break. You can't do everything. You can't be all things to all people. You can't be the perfect boss and the perfect employee, husband, wife, parent, grand-parent, golf player, guitar player, and so on. Our inability to do some things is sometimes not a measure of our desire or intelligence or work ethic, it's simply a measure of our humanity.

There's another inspiring lesson that I find in S'forno's words. Each of us are limited by our humanity, but in many cases, those limitations are different. This is one reason why Judaism places such esteem on the concept of a minyan. We are greater than the sum of our parts. Islam contains a similar teaching. Chapter 49 of the Koran contains this beautiful verse: God has created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. (49:13)

We see this teaching played out in the previous Exodus portion of Yitro. In the beginning of that portion, Moses did think that he could do everything. His father-in-law gave him advice that allowed Moses to delegate authority and responsibility, so that he could contionue to grew as the leader of our people.

The limitations of our humanity are a blessing, in that they cause us to seek out others, so that we may increase our knowledge, our talents, and our holiness.

We may not be able to see God and live, but together, we can perform acts of righteousness and live holy lives. And if that's the closest we can get to seeing God's face, I can live with that.

Eat Your Matzah (Except When you Can't) (Shabbat before Passover)

How do we Light the Eternal Light? (T'zaveh)