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Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom G-d had known face to face (34:11).
This verse is the base of Rambam’s Seventh Principle of Faith: that Moses is the greatest of all the prophets. A prophet is a person to whom G-d communicates His word, and he or she conveys the message to the people. It may be verbal, like Isaiah, and/or a series of miracles, as with Elijah. According to the Rambam, in the Guide to the Perplexed, the prophesies given to Moses (such as the Giving of the Torah) were greater than those of the other prophets because they directly affected all the Israelites: in contrast to Elijah’s and Elisha’s, which were demonstrated before individuals or groups of people only. The Ramban disagrees, and says that revelations through Moses were of a higher quality than those through the prophets – citing the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai as the greatest of all revelations in the Israelite experience.
Rashi appears to translate the verse differently. He does not appear to understand the words ‘asher yeda-o Hashem panim el panim’ as ‘whom G-d had known face to face’, but as ‘who knew G-d face to face’. Rashi writes that such was Moses’ familiarity with G-d that he could speak with Him whenever he wished.
This interpretation raises the question: how could Moses be so close to G-d that he could know Him face to face? For elsewhere, G-d explicitly said to Moses, ‘You cannot see My face. For no man may see me and live’ (Ex. 33:20). The Talmud (Berachot 7) brings the tradition that at that time Moses wanted to know why there were some good people who suffered and some evil people who prospered. G-d’s reply was ‘You cannot see My face’ – G-d’s face being His vast eternal plan and where everyone fits into it.
This point may be illustrated with a parable from the Chafetz Chaim. A Shabbat visitor from a distant town noticed that the prestigious aliyot were given to members, rather than to the leaders of the community. Neither the Rabbi nor the wealthy communal benefactor received any mitzvot at all. Puzzled, he approached the warden and exclaimed, ‘In the place where I come from, the community shows respect to the Rav by giving him shlishi, and honor the parness with shishi! And here the schlepper has shlishi and the schnorrer, shishi! The warden laughed and said, ‘You have been here for just one Shabbat. When you stay here for years on end you will understand how we rotate the mitzvot fairly and squarely so that everyone has a turn and no-one is slighted or left out.’
So according to Rashi, there seems to be a contradiction between the two verses. On one hand G-d states, ‘No man may see me and live’, and on the other, Moses is described as having ‘known G-d face to face.’
Is it possible to know G-d?
In the Rambam’s treatise outlining the Thirteen Principles of Faith, he writes that G-d transcends all human comprehension of time and space. According to the Rambam, even the quality of oneness that we attribute to G-d is essentially beyond human comprehension and is different than the quality of oneness that we as human beings understands. G-d exists, but is basically ‘unknowable’.
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that, ‘The mystery of G-d remains forever sealed to Man… All we have is an awareness of the mystery, but it is a presence that the mind can never penetrate (G-d in search of Man, pp. 61-2). Thus an infinite abyss separates the human experience from the holy, crossed only through revelation and prophecy.
Applying the above to the issue under study, it comes out that Moses was accessible to G-d in that only he could say to an inquiring assembled people, ‘Stand and I will hear what G-d will command you’ (Num. 9:8). No other prophet had the instant ‘hot line’ to G-d – he or she had to wait until the word of G-d arrived. That appears to be the meaning of ‘having known G-d face to face’. But it does not mean that his experience of G-d was any more than having Him as a ‘close contact’ – he was not privy to His vast eternal plan.
In closing the Third Series, I would like to quote Heschel’s approach to a deep question that is the concern of many sincere and intelligent people. Today, millennia after the close of prophecy, how is it possible to deepen one’s relationship with G-d, and thus grow spiritually?
Heschel writes that, ‘there are three starting points of contemplation about G-d, and three trails that lead to Him. The first is the way of sensing the presence of G-d in the world… the second is the way of sensing His presence in the Bible, and the third is the way of sensing His presence in sacred deeds’ (G-d in search of Man, p. 31). Thus through observing the natural world, through learning, and through action, a person may come nearer to mysteries of G-d and the Creation. As Aryeh ben David writes (below): ‘Each person may be intuitively drawn to one of these paths, yet ideally all three paths are experienced and serve to complement each other.’ In that context, he observes the following:
‘Moses experienced G-d in each of these three ways: at the burning bush he saw G-d’s influence in the natural world, at Mount Sinai he deepened his relationship with G-d through his mind, and in his forty years of leading… in the desert he came closer to G-d in his actions. Though the Torah states that “never rose a prophet like Moses…” nevertheless his achievements serve as an example towards which every Jew can aspire.’
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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