Did you even wonder about that last bit, the part where God announces that the sight of Him would be fatal to any human, even one as holy and pure as Moshe Rabeinu, a"h? Most people don't. After all, isn't it obvious that the manifestation of God, being all-powerful, described as a consuming fire and utterly beyond anything we could imagine comprehending, would be something a mere mortal could not physically withstand?
But even though one of the givens of existence is that God is so all-powerful that the sight of Him would be fatal to us, another is that He is so all-powerful that he not only maintains the rules of that existence but created them and can alter them at will. So why can't man see God and live? Why can't He simply adjust the rules of reality to allow for that?
Before Rosh HaShanah, the holiday on which we crown God as King of the Universe, this is an important matter to consider. After all, His claim to the throne, as it were, is based on His omnipotence but if He cannot adjust reality to allow a human to see Him then that implies a limit to His ability, negating the basis for the coronation in the first place.
The answer to this problem is found at the end of this week's parashah. After completing the vision of the future that will result in God's redeeming us from our exile and restoring us to our Land, Moshe Rabeinu finishes by explaining how the Torah is within our ability to observe and then goes to the heart of the matter:
"See I have before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thus God, to walk in His ways and to keep His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply, and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the Land whither thou goest in to possess it... I call Heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed" (Devarim 30:15-16, 19)
Many skeptics and so-called atheists like to point out that one cannot empirically prove that God exists. Despite simplistic or dogmatic attempts to the contrary, they are essentially correct. Yes, a strong philosophical case can be made for the God being there but in the end, it's all just mind games. You cannot scientifically and definitively prove that the universe and all its contents aren't some big coincidental fluke.
And that's the point: Judaism doesn't expect you to worship and obey God because you know He's there and gave us the Torah. It expects you to worship and obey God because you believe that He's there and gave us the Torah. And there is a world of difference between the two.
The former, knowledge, removes doubt from a person's mind. If I see something before me, then I know it's real. If I have a recording of someone's speech, then I know what he said. Science is based on knowledge and the ability to empirically test it. If something is not testable, then it cannot be a real thing. (It's what makes naturopathy and homeopathy frauds but that's another post). God, however, is not testable by any known scientific method. You cannot see Him, hear Him or invoke any His direct reaction to any action of yours. Yes, there are those who would talk about "obvious" ways to see God's existence in nature but they can all be disproven in the end.
On the other hand, ontological arguments require a preceding belief in God to sustain their validity. For example, the argument of Anselm of Canterbury of the being of which no greater than can be conceived. In other words, some being in the universe has to be the most powerful, and that being in God.
Thus we return to the original problem: you cannot prove God exists without a shadow of a doubt, therefore you must believe it in the absence of that proof. Hence the difference between knowing and believing. Knowing requires a full set of corroborating facts, belief survives despite the absence of those facts.
This, then, is is why God puts the choice mentioned above before us. If one believes that God descended to Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah, both oral and written, then the rest of Judaism flows from that. If one doesn't, then the entire system becomes, chalilah, a falsehood that can be safely disregarded.
It is interesting to note that in spite of this important difference, our ancestors who physically stood at Mount Sinai were not simply left to rely on Moshe's assurances of the existence of God. After witnessed the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the daily supply of man and the well of Miriam, they reached a level where they observed the manifestation of God Himself during the giving of the Ten Commandments, as it says: "The Lord spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire." (Dev 5:5) And further: "And ye have known this day and placed it in your in thine heart that the Lord is God in Heaven above and the earth below, there is no other." For this generation, God was not a good idea or a likely concept. Each one of our forefathers was given undeniable proof of His existence and unmatched power. Why then do we have to rely on faith if knowledge was good enough for them?
The answer relies on an understanding of the nature of merit and the value of free will in Jewish thought. We are told that God not only created good but also evil. Why? To increase the merit of those who overcome their yetzer hara in order to perform the mitzvos. After all, an activity only has intrinsic moral value if performing the opposite was also an option that was consciously avoided because of a love of God and the desire to fulfill His will. Mindless obedience is without value in Judaism. Thus at the end of Devarim, when the people are preparing to enter Israel where they will be without the manifestation of the Shechinah and on their own, Moshe now reminds them that for the ages, being a Jew means consciously choosing to be one, not simply doing it by rote or because one isn't aware of other options.
And if this is true, then the verse this post opened with now makes sense from an entirely different perspective. Ever since Adam and Chavah ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the essential characteristic of man has been "to know good and evil" (Bereshis 3:22). Now consider how this characteristic would fare in the presence of a visible manifestation of God. Presented with the Master of the Universe in even a fraction of His glory, who could think of evil? Who could rebel against his Holy Presence? Evil, wrongdoing, sin, would cease to be options for people and, indeed, our prophets repeatedly note that at the end of days when God gathers us in to our Land and rebuilds our Temple (speedily in our days, amen) that evil will cease to exist because the world will be filled with "the knowledge of the Lord". Not belief, but knowledge because God's presence will once again become verifiable.
So this is possibly what God meant, on some level, when he told Moshe Rabeinu that man could not see Him and live. Moshe Rabeinu achieved 49 levels of tahara and wisdom, but the 50th eluded him. In some miniscule way that we cannot understand, perfection was denied him. Thus he remained a mortal man. Had God shown him His Face, that tiny imperfection may have been denied. And what man has no evil in him? As the quote from Bereshis indicates, only one who isn't alive.
This would also help explain what Chazal meant when they say that our forefathers all died at Har Sinai when presented with the Ten Commandments, leading to God reviving them. Again, on the surface the story sounds ridiculous. God works to bring them out of Egypt and just as they reach the final purpose of the exodus, they drop dead? But with this understanding, it now becomes clearer. Faced with a vision of God Himself, evil itself could no longer be a part of them. Thus they shed their mortal coils as a result for no man can see God and continue to be a living man as a result of the experience.
In conclusion, it is not God's inability, chas v'shalom, that prevented Moshe Rabeinu, from seeing His Face but the essential nature of God and the perfection that surrounds Him. Our forefathers needed a human leader and for Moshe Rabeinu to rise above that limitation would have denied them that. Therefore God could not show Him His face so that His plans could continue on for us.
With this coming Rosh HaShanah, we begin our annual ten day journey towards repentance. We must all remember that sin is as much a part of creation as good deeds are but a part that was designed for us to overcome. No matter how we have fallen through the past year, God in His infinite mercy has given us this time to rise above our frail human limitations and restore ourselves to His image. May this coming year be one of meaning, health and happiness to all and may we merit to see the final end of our Redemption in the coming months.