“And I will remove My hand and you will see My back. And My face will not be seen.” (Shemot 33:23)
Moshe ascends Mount Sinai. He asks the Almighty to reveal to him His essential nature. Hashem responds that a material being is not capable of grasping the Divine essence. However, Hashem agrees to allow Moshe to see His back. This apparently means that although we cannot attain an absolute understanding of the Almighty, we are capable of some lower level of comprehension. This more mundane understanding is represented as seeing the Almighty’s back.
The Talmud in Tractate Berachot comments on this episode. The Talmud explains that Moshe saw the knot of the teffillin worn by the Almighty on His head. These comments present two obvious difficulties. First, Hashem is not physical. He cannot be conceived as a being wearing teffillin. Second, Maimonides explains that Moshe achieved the highest possible understanding of the Almighty. It did not involve any corporeal element. It is possible that a less perfect individual might attribute some physicality to the Almighty. But how could our Sages claim that Moshe perceived Hashem wearing teffillin?
Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud, provides some direction in interpreting the Sages’ comments. He refers us to a previous text. In this text the Talmud explains that Hashem wears teffillin. The Talmud also deals with the contents of the Almighty’s teffillin. The Talmud explains that these teffillin contain the passage, “Who is like Your nation Israel? They are a singular people in the land”. This text is also difficult to understand. However, it provides an essential element needed to explain Moshe’s vision. In order to appreciate the message of the Talmud, we must place Moshe’s vision in context.
Bnai Yisrael had committed the sin of creating and worshiping the egel the golden calf. This sin altered the relationship between the Almighty and His nation. Moshe wished to reestablish the intimate connection between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. In this context, Moshe asked Hashem for a revelation of His nature. The Almighty responded by showing Moshe the knot of His teffillin. This vision gave Moshe the knowledge he needed. With this new understanding, he was able to reestablish the relationship damaged by the sin of the egel. In this context, let us reconsider the comments of the Talmud. The Sages explain that the Almighty’s teffillin contain a passage that affirm the unique relationship between the Almighty and Bnai Yisrael. In other words, the teffillin represent the bond between Hashem and His people. Moshe could not see the front of Hashem. He could not fully understand the nature of Hashem. He also could not view the front of Hashem’s teffillin. This means that the relationship between the Almighty and Bnai Yisrael is a consequence of the Divine essence. Moshe’s understanding of the relationship was necessarily limited. Without full understanding of Hashem’s nature, he could not fully grasp the relationship. However, he could see the knot of the teffillin. He was able to study the relationship as an emanation or effect of the Divine essence. An analogy will help illustrate this concept.
Let us compare the Almighty to fire. When the ancient human discovered fire, this unsophisticated individual could not understand the scientific nature of combustion. However, our ancestors could study the effect of fire and heat on different substances. The study of these phenomena did not require a complete comprehension of fire itself. Similarly, Moshe could not understand the ultimate nature of the Almighty. Yet, he could contemplate the relationship between the Almighty and Bnai Yisrael. This understanding enabled Moshe to appeal properly to Hashem and beseech Him for forgiveness for His nation. We now understand that Moshe’s vision did not involve any corporeal element. Our Sages are utilizing imagery to communicate an important message regarding Moshe’s experience at Sinai.
“And when Moshe came before Hashen to speak with Him, he would remove the covering until he went out. And he would go out and speak to Bnai Yisrael telling them what had been commanded. And the nation saw that the skin of Moshe’s face glowed. And Moshe would restore the covering over his face until he came to speak with Him.” (Shemot 34:34-35)
Moshe ascended Mount Sinai a final time. On this occasion he achieved a profound understanding of the Almighty and His ways. This knowledge is the most advanced understanding of the Almighty that can be acquired by a human being. The Torah explains that when Moshe descended from the mountain his face glowed. At first, Ahron and the people were afraid to approach Moshe. However, Moshe called to Ahron and Bnai Yisrael to approach him. He then spoke with Ahron, the leaders and the nation. Upon completion of this address, Moshe placed a covering over his face. This covering hid the light that glowed from his face. Our passages explain the role of this covering. Whenever Moshe communicated with the Almighty he removed this covering. Most commentaries maintain that the covering remained removed while Moshe delivered Hashem’s message to the people. After Moshe completed his presentation, he restored the covering. Moshe’s face remained covered until he next communicated with Hashem.
Gershonides seems to differ on the use of the covering. According to his opinion, the covering was restored as soon as Moshe finished speaking with Hashem. When Moshe spoke with the people, his face was covered. The commentaries offer various interpretations of the glow and the covering. Most understand the Torah’s account literally. Moshe’s face actually beamed with light. The covering is also understood in the literal sense. However, Gershonides takes a different approach to explaining this narrative. He suggests that neither the beams of light or the covering should be interpreted literally. Instead, they are to be understood figuratively. In order to understand Gershonides’ interpretation it is important to remember that he maintains that the covering was only removed during Moshe’s communication with Hashem. During his address to Bnai Yisrael, the covering was restored. Gershonides begins by explaining that Moshe achieved the highest possible level of prophecy. He explains that Moshe’s prophetic ability developed over time. At Sinai, Hashem revealed to Moshe the most profound truths a human being can grasp. This implies that Sinai represented the full maturation of Moshe as a prophet. He was at the zenith of his prophetic powers.
Moshe’s advanced level of prophecy expressed itself in various ways. Maimonides outlines the differences between Moshe and other prophets in his Mishne Torah. One of these differences is that other prophets can only receive prophecy after adequate preparation. The prophet must enter into an appropriate state. In this state the individual sheds all attachment with the material world. An inner peace and calm must also be reached. This is not an easily achieved state. The difficulty of attaining and maintaining this state limits the opportunity of the prophet to receive prophecy. Moshe could achieve prophecy at any time. He was always in the state requisite for prophecy. He possessed a super-human ability to detach himself from the material world and focus on the Almighty. Gershonides asserts that this distinction can be expressed in an even more basic manner. Other prophets are basically focused on the material world. In order to achieve prophecy, they force themselves to refocus their orientation. Through tremendous effort, they shed their material orientation and focus on the spiritual. In contrast, Moshe ultimately altered his basic orientation. When Moshe descended from Sinai, he was no longer similar to other human beings or prophets. He was completely focused on the spiritual. He was entirely detached from the material world. In other words, Moshe was innately focused on the spiritual.
We can now understand Gershonides’ interpretation of Moshe’s glow and his covering. Moshe descended from Sinai. He was no longer like other human beings. He was an essentially spiritual being. Ahron and the Bnai Yisrael sensed Moshe’s complete detachment from the material world. The “glow” that emanated from Moshe was this super-human spiritual focus. Ahron and the nation reacted with awe. They could not approach Moshe. Neither could Moshe easily communicate with the material world and its inhabitants. This created a problem. Moshe was the Almighty’s prophet. His responsibility was to deliver the Divine message to the people. Yet, a barrier now existed between Moshe and the nation. His very perfection, interfered with his relationship with Bnai Yisrael. The people were in awe of Moshe and could not approach him. Moshe, not longer related to the world he was commanded to instruct. In order for Moshe to communicate with the people, he was forced to reenter the material realm. For Moshe, this required an act of will. He was required to suspend some element of his spiritual orientation. This reorientation to the material is described as a covering. The covering symbolizes Moshe hiding his true nature. Moshe hid an element of his spiritual self in order to communicate with the nation.
Mesechet Berachot 7a. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 5. Divrai HaYamim I, 17:21. Mesechet Berachot 6a. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 34:33. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 34:33. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 440. See, for example, Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 34:33. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah, chapter 7. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah, 7:4-6. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 440.