He [Moshe]said, “Show me now Your kavod...”He [Hashem]said, “I will
make all my goodness pass before you, and I shall call out the Name Hashem
before you. I shall show favor when I choose to show favor, and I shall show
mercy when I choose to show mercy. You will not be able to see my face, for
no human can see my face and live…There is a place near Me…You will see My
back, but My face may not be seen.”
The stakes could not be higher. Mistranslating these verses easily crosses
the line into heresy. Properly grasping them means understanding what can be
comprehended about G-d – and what is beyond our comprehension. It turns out
that by learning about the limits of what Moshe could understand, we will
sharpen our own understanding of Elokus.
Moshe never asked to “see” Hashem. He fully understood that Hashem cannot be
seen like a physical object. He asked for intellectual clarity, to see in
his mind’s eye what he previously understood, but now wished to understand
more deeply, pushing his comprehension to the limit.
Having been told that he, Moshe, would be responsible for continuing to lead
the people, Moshe had successfully argued to Hashem  that he would need
greater insight into His ways in order to perform his job effectively. Armed
with answers to questions about Hashem’s ways, he would be a better leader.
Hashem responded that, “My Presence will go and I will provide you with what
you wish . In other words, you, Moshe, do not really need deeper
knowledge of My nature in order to lead, because I will soon restore My
Presence to the people, making it much easier for you to act as leader.
Nonetheless, I will accede to your request for greater knowledge of My ways.
Emboldened by Hashem’s favorable reply, Moshe decided to press the point. If
You are willing to teach me about Yourself, please teach me to the very
limit of human understanding. This is what Moshe meant in asking to see
Hashem’s kavod. (The word is the spiritual analogue to koved, which means
the weight and substance of a physical object. That mass takes up room;
through it, we detect its presence and size. Kavod does the same in the
non-physical sphere. Applied to HKBH, it means something which points to the
reality of G-d, that shouts out that He is there, and what He is about.) He
wishes to grasp that kavod so clearly that it is as if he could see it.
Hashem again responds affirmatively. He first tells Moshe about what he will
be able to understand, and then draws a line beyond which Moshe will not be
able to go. First He tells Moshe that he will indeed “see” things quite
clearly, and in addition, He will explain to him what he is seeing. (“I
shall call out the Name Hashem before you.” This calling out is Hashem’s
commentary on what Moshe was experiencing.)
Specifically, Moshe, wished to solve the paradox of Hashem appearing to act
so differently to different people and on different occasions, while His
Oneness dictates a kind of uniformity in His essential Self. Moshe wished to
find the uniformity that underlies the apparent diversity in the way He acts.
HKBH presented Moshe with a roadmap to discovering the resolution of the
paradox. He would pinpoint for him the element of His behavior that is
constant, that suffuses all His seemingly disparate and diverse reactions,
and that unites them all. That element is kol tuvi, “all my goodness.” Human
beings have it within their ability to accept and to relate to the fact that
Hashem’s goodness is a constant. Even when they cannot understand how an
event is good, they can realize that it must be so, because goodness is part
of His essence. By concentrating on it, accompanied by the benefit of
Hashem’s own commentary upon it, Moshe would achieve new insight into the
complexity of Hashem’s different reactions. (Because Man was given the
freedom of will with which to make choices, Hashem’s reactions to different
people have to be different, coordinating with where those choices have
taken them.) Above all, Moshe would understand how Hashem’s goodness weaves
through all His actions, tying everything together. More than any other
concept, it is the common thread running through all His actions. Only by
grasping it would Moshe be able to lead a people with questions about His
This underlying goodness manifests itself through two characteristics that
Moshe would be able to study and comprehend. Moshe would see how these two
indeed apply to every human being at all times. He would see chaninah/
favor, as well as rachamim/ mercy. (The former refers to Hashem’s endowing
us with the power to be at the very beginning of our existence. The latter
takes that existence and stands by it through all phases of its development,
maintaining and nurturing it as if in a protective womb.)
Rather than see sameness, Moshe would understand how the application of
these two characteristics produces such different phenomena in different
people. The rest of us mortals are plagued with questions, such as the
apparent evil befalling the righteous, and the good that is often the lot of
the evil. Because we are so limited, we are hopelessly off the mark in
understanding just who is good and who is evil. Moreover, we have even less
understanding of what is truly good and truly evil for a given person.
Even Moshe would not understand everything. He would at least be able to
detect the two characteristics at work, but still fail to grasp how the
different manifestations of them are suitable for different people. Even
understanding Hashem’s favor and mercy, Moshe could not get the full
picture, because he could not fully plumb the true nature of other people.
Thus, one opinion in Berachos 7A maintains that Moshe never solved the
problem of tzadik ve-ra lo, the evil that befalls the righteous. On the
level of Hashem’s conduct in relation to a specific individual, even Moshe’s
understanding would come up short.
Moshe could not understand perfectly because he could not become G-d. Hashem
would bring him to a place “near” Him. From there, Moshe would not be able
to “see” G-d, but he would be able to see Hashem’s interaction with human
beings from a perspective much closer to that of Hashem. Nothing beyond that
is within our ability to understand.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Shemos 33:12, 14, 18-21
2. Shemos 33:13
3. Shemos 33:14