Asking For the Impossible

February 16, 2011

WOULDN’T YOU AGREE that it is somewhat presumptuous for a mortal to ask of G-d to see His glory?

Well, Moshe did just that when he asked: hareini na et kevodecha – “Please let me have a vision of Your glory,” or as Saadia Gaon translates, “Let me comprehend Your unique nature.” The Zohar expresses amazement at such a daring request, asking for such a vision. Didn’t Moshe realize, as we all do, that it is absurd, and perhaps even arrogant, to ask for the impossible? What motivation could the greatest of all men have in making such a request? Did he not know that the answer perforce must be Ki lo yireani ha’adam ve’chai that “man cannot have a vision of Me and live”?

The Zohar responds that Moshe rightfully imagined that after reaching and experiencing the greatest and most exalted spiritual level for forty days, separated from all that is physical, sustained by all that is G-dly, he may indeed be worthy to “see” G-d. He was told however, that as long as his neshama, his soul, as great and exalted as it may be, was bound to a physical body, “seeing” G-d as he desired was in the realm of the impossible.
There are two passages in Rambam’s writings that allow us to better comprehend Moshe’s request and G-d’s response. The first is in the Yad HaChazakah, while the second is in the Guide of the Perplexed.

What was it that Moshe sought to comprehend, when he said ‘Show me, I beseech thee, Thy glory?’ He sought to have so clear an apprehension of the truth of G-d’s existence that the knowledge might be like that which one possesses of a human being, whose face one has seen and whose image is imprinted on the mind and whom therefore, the mind distinguishes from other men. In the same way, Moshe asked that the truth of G-d’s existence might be distinguished in his mind from other beings, and that he might thus know the truth of G-d’s existence, as it really is. G-d replied that it is beyond the mental capacity of a human creature, composed of body and soul, to obtain in this regard clear knowledge of the truth.

That being the case that a mortal physical being cannot perceive G-d, did Moshe receive no response at all? Is there “no way”? Yes, there is, under limiting circumstances of our physical reality.

The Almighty, however, imparted to Moshe what has been vouchsafed to no man before or since. Moshe attained so much knowledge of the truth of the Divine existence that G-d was in his mind, distinct from other beings, in the same way as an individual, whose back is seen, whose physical form and apparel are perceived, is distinguished in the observer’s mind from the physical form of other individuals. The Torah hints at this, saying: ‘You will see My back, but My face shall not be seen.’

Moshe sought to know G-d as a unique and singular essence, in the same way as one is able to know man as separate and apart from all other forms of creation. This no mortal man can know, not even Moshe. What Moshe can know and fully comprehend is HaShem’s achorai, His attributes, His image.

This, the Rambam conveys in his Guide (Part I, Chapter 54).

Know that the master of those who know, Moshe our Master, made two requests and received an answer to both of them. One request consisted in his asking Him, to let him know His essence and true reality. The second request, which he put first, was that He should let him know His attributes. The answer to the two requests that G-d gave him consisted in His promising him to let him know all His attributes, making it known to him that they are His actions, and teaching him that His essence cannot be grasped as it really is…for when he would know the ways, he would know him.

G-d reveals to man, even to the greatest among them, only that which may ultimately be used to become as G-dly as possible, considering all of man’s limiting physical attributes. It is impossible for a physical being to divorce from one’s body, so that only his soul governs his worldly existence. That being the case, man’s greatest virtue and ultimate goal on this world is to become as G-d like as possible, namely, to imitate His Ways within the circumscribed limitations of possessing a soul enveloped by a physical body. In practical terms this means that man’s life mission is to become holy, gracious, merciful and forgiving, just as G-d is Holy, gracious, merciful and forgiving. It is true that G-d is a great and powerful King, but He is also a loving and compassionate Father. It is true that He is omnipotent, transcendental, and distant, but he is likewise all knowing, gracious and merciful. It is true that He is beyond man’s limited and physical mind, but He is always within every simple mortal’s grasp and reach. G-d is the One who lo tuchal lireot et panai, yet He is the one who aavir kol tuvi al panecha.

A learned atheist once met a poor laborer going to shul. He asked him: “Where are you going?” “I am going to shul, sir.” “What will you do there?” was the next question. “I will worship G-d.” “Is your G-d a great G-d or a small G-d?” the atheist asked.

“He is both sir,” was the reply. “He is so great that the heavens cannot contain Him, and He is so small that He can dwell in my poor little heart.”

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.