Ki Tisa is most famous for the Golden Calf, but to explain that episode and why the people trusted Moses so much, a remarkable description of Moses’ relationship with God is used in chapter 33, verse 11. It’s a turn of phrase that is very interesting:
"The Lord would speak to Moshe face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”
Some translations render it “as one speaks with another” because they are afraid of the intimacy that it really intends. Ra-a-hu—the people you live with, care for, in your community—is the same word as in the “golden rule”-v’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha—love your neighour as yourself.
Imagine having that kind of relationship with God.
I call it a kitchen-table relationship: feeling so close to a Divine Presence that you feel you can sit down at the kitchen table and talk to God one on one, the way you would with your neighbour.
Moses’ first encounter with God required the mediation of the burning bush, where God spoke indirectly and through the bush; but after freeing the people from Egypt—an experience in which Moses and God worked in partnership—Moses and God speak face to face. Later in the book of Numbers, in response to the slurs against Moses offered by his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, God appears to them and emphasizes: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. And when Moses dies, his soul departs “al pi Adonai,” literally, "by God's mouth" but the midrash suggests it is with a kiss from God that Moses departs this world. The Torah concludes with this relationship: "Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses – whom God spoke with, face-to-face".
The concept of the unique tenderness that characterized Moses’ relationship with God appears in the Talmud, as well. In Masechet Yevamot 49b, the Talmud describes Moses’ exposure to God as "aspaklaria ha-me'ira" – "clear glass," whereas other prophets beheld God through "aspaklaria she-eina me-ira," or "dim glass."
The Spanish 13th century commentator Rabbeinu Bachya says that because of this clarity, because of this relationship, Moses’ glow never left him:
“And this light which shone forth from his face never left him from the time that he was on Mt. Sinai. It was with him all his life.”
Oh, to see God that clearly in our own lives, not through a dim glass. Our faces would glow too.
But what if we chose to see God more clearly in the glow of other’s faces? This strange and wonderful line in our parsha about the close relationship between God and Moses suggests that we can see God less dimly in our lives through the way we speak to our friends and neighbours. Because if God spoke to Moses as if with a fellow human being, then surely Moses spoke to his fellow human being as if with God.
If each human being is seen as b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, glowing with the clarity of that Divine spark residing deep within us all—then the way we communicate with each other will mirror that. The way we compliment and the way we criticize will mirror that. The way we think again before pressing the send button will mirror that. The way we post on our public pages or choose not to post on our public pages will mirror that.
Today happens to be The National Day of Unplugging, a 24 hour period – sundown to sundown – the first weekend in March every year. It’s a project of Reboot, a Jewish organization of young artists creating new ways for people to make Jewish values relevant. Let’s look at what we can learn from Moses’ face-to-face, kitchen-table relationship during the Day of National Unplugging, when you and I sit together face to face without Facebook in direct communication, speaking with each other as one speaks with a neighbour, and seeing the glow in each other’s eyes.
I know we are unplugged for this short period of a service, and especially for the Bar Mitzvah of Hank, although it is probably killing some of you that you cannot take a photo of the moment instead of just being in the moment. interestingly we have to remind people week after week to keep cell phones off not only during the service, but also during the kiddush, and I can reassure you, after seeing this week after week, that the kids will start taking out their cell phones in another room as soon as they see I’m not around.
It’s at the Tent of Meeting, where the people gathered, that God spoke to Moses as if with a friend. When we gather here in the synagogue, it is that unplugged Tent of Meeting that allows for the relationship of God as friend and friend as God to grow.
I practice a day of unplugging every Shabbat, in fact, and I have from the bima pitched that idea many times. I do not unplug as an Orthodox halacha of not using electricity or technology. I unplug not to “undoing” something but to “do” something: to see the people I care about face to face, glowing in the image of God.
If we see each other that clearly, and in seeing each other that clearly, see the Divine Spark manifested within, we might be able to speak with God as with a friend.