Moses is reeling after his people built the Golden Calf. He is exhausted by their faithlessness and appalled by God’s threat to abandon them. Distraught, Moses cries out to God: “hareini na et k’vodecha” (“God, show me Your honor”). God interprets Moses’ plea as a fervent need in this moment of despair to see God’s face. And God answers: “No. You cannot see My face and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
This is just one moment in a Jewish tradition that pulls us toward being face-to-face, panim el panim, with the other. Such encounters are elevated as sacred connections between people and between human beings and God. While acknowledging the risks involved, Jewish texts and commentators suggest that a face gazing into a face is perhaps the most powerful and transformational posture two individuals can experience. Philosopher Martin Buber calls this moment “revelation,” and he teaches that each person leaves the experience with something “more” in them.
Although God warns that seeing God’s face could kill a person, our ancestor Jacob’s experience would suggest otherwise. In Genesis, as he prepares to meet his brother Esau, he wrestles with what the text describes as an “ish,” a man. In the struggle, his hip is rent from its socket and his name is changed to “Yisrael.” As he limps away, Jacob declares: “I have seen God panim el panim, and my life is preserved.” (32:31) Not only does Jacob live but his heart, his body, and his name are transformed. And, Torah spoiler alert, we learn in Moses’ epitaph: “There has never been another prophet in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face-to-face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)
Why is being panim el panim so meaningful? We find a hint in the construction of the mishkan, our traveling wilderness sanctuary. Moses is instructed to build the lid of the ark with two angels on top, “and their faces will be as a man facing his brother.” (Exodus 25:20) God then says: “That is where I will meet with you.” In the space between two faces, we find God, God finds us.
As a congregational rabbi and a community organizer, there is no more important practice than building relationships face-to-face. In justice work, which addresses the root causes of suffering, people sit p_anim el panim_ and share their stories, pain, and dreams. A face gazing into a face creates the space for vulnerability, trust, hope, and even God. There, across lines of difference, we can decide to cast our lots together to heal suffering. Face-to-face meetings not only have the power to change the individuals, but have led communities to make systemic change, as in New York, where community-based organizing led to the protection of children from dangerous incarceration in adult prisons.
And when we cannot sit face-to-face? We find we can see the face of the other even in our own face and the faces of those we love. We read in Proverbs: “Kamayimhapanim lapanim, ken lev ha’adam la’adam.” (“As a face reflects a face in water, so does one person’s heart reflect another.”) (27:19) When I look at my daughter’s face, I see reflected there the terrified faces of children torn from their parents on our southern border, as if I were sitting across from them, and I am unable to be indifferent.
This is why being panim el panim is so risky, so powerful, so beautiful. We do not merely see the person before us and then go on our way. Rather, our tradition asks that our hearts be stirred to empathy and our hands and feet to action as we see ourselves reflected in another’s eyes. There, in humanity’s gaze and God’s presence, we find ourselves accountable to one another and called to action.
This story "Martin Buber’s I-Thou; Engaging in social justice work" was written by Stephanie Kolin.
Stephanie Kolin is a rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, a community organizer, and an Auburn Seminary senior fellow. She has been named as one of Newsweek’s “Rabbis to Watch.” and one of the Forward’s “America’s Influential Women Rabbis.” Kolin now lives in New York City with her wife and their daughter.