(12) Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’
(13) Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.”
(14) And He said, “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.”
(15) And he said to Him, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.
(16) For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?”
(17) And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.”
(18) He said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!”
(19) And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.
(20) But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.”
(21) And the Lord said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock
(22) and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.
(23) Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
(12) Moses said to the Lord: The next dozen verses are among the most difficult in the entire Torah. They speak of levels of mystical contact with the Divine that cannot be explained clearly and precisely. The ideas cannot be conveyed through ordinary language, except in terms that remotely allude to an esoteric secret.
After experiencing the crisis of the golden calf, Moses now asks God about His ways of running the world. Previously, the law was to him the most important thing, but now he is more concerned with how to overcome crisis, and internal contradictions and conflicts.
Previously, Moses faced only external difficulties: Pharaoh would not let the Jews leave Egypt, or the people did not know or could not understand something, and Moses had to tell it or explain it to them. But now Moses has been confronted with an internal crisis. At first the people seemed to understand everything, consented to everything, and received the Torah. But then, once again, they behaved inappropriately.
Moses was initially focused on advancing forward, rather than correcting past flaws and mistakes, but now he wants to learn about this too. In a sense, we can say that Moses is taking lessons here from his younger brother Aaron, who from the very beginning was always focused on the correction of sins. As it turns out, Aaron’s line too is rooted in the foundations of the universe and is not “just the result of some chance error.” And although the Divine governance of the world is based on mercy, kindness, and patience, neither does it exclude punishment for transgressions.
Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me”: Moses asks God to restore to the people His immediate Divine Presence. Although Moses does not explicitly mention his issue with the presence of the angel, he presents the situation as still partially unresolved and awaiting correction. And he considers the possibility of such a correction entirely realistic.
After the people have not only repented (removed their finery), but have demonstrated their desire to approach the Almighty (as expressed by their attentiveness to the Tent of Meeting), Moses works to restore the former level of the Divine Presence among the people. The physical preservation of the people is not enough for him – he demands the preservation of the Jews’ chosenness, and of their mission. He therefore cannot consent to God’s latest proposal of establishing His presence among the people only through an angel.
We noted above that God’s initial instruction to Moses was not to carve the second tablets, nor somehow to find some other correction for everything that had happened. Instead He only sent the people back on their journey to the Land of Israel while also reducing the level of their spirituality and their direct connection with God (33:1-3). Only thanks to Moses’ persistence does God finally agree to restore the people to their prior status.
It often happens in life that although we are spared from total collapse, we are nevertheless unable to return to the same level from where we started. Our future fate then depends on whether we just accept our diminished level as the price we must pay for having been saved, or we continue the struggle to be restored to our original position.
Further, You have said, “I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor”: Moses mentions his own merits solely for the sake of advancing the people.
The literal translation of “I have singled you out by name” in this verse is “I know you by name.” As noted earlier, a name in Hebrew is not merely a convenience for referring to the entity so named; rather, it characterizes the purpose, task, or mission of the given person or object. God’s “knowing Moses by name” means that Moses’ received his mission and his assignments from the Almighty Himself, with no intermediate involvement of angels. And therefore, Moses argues, that mission and those assignments should likewise be realized only through the Almighty’s direct presence among the Jewish people.
And you have, indeed, gained My favor: To “gain (or find) favor” in Hebrew is limtzo chen, which is the very same expression the Torah used in speaking of Noah: “But Noah found favor with the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). Moses considers God’s special regard for him not as an indication of his own personal merits, but only as a sign of God’s kindness and grace. This testifies to the special gratitude that Moses felt toward the Almighty. And gratitude is the foundation of spiritual growth.
(13) Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people: Moses is saying to God: Explain Your ways to me, so that I can understand how one earns Your grace, so that I may receive it not only for myself, but for the entire nation. For they are Your people, and everything they do in the world they do only for You.
In parallel with restoring the nation’s status, Moses now also raises his own status as their leader. Thus, in response to the crisis, Moses has been able not only to rectify the situation, but even to improve it. And this is precisely what makes it possible for him to receive the second tablets, which are a collaborative endeavor between God and Moses.
(14) And He said, “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden”: The Almighty agrees to revise His decision for Moses’ sake – to not send an angel, but to go Himself among the people.
This dialogue reveals that Moses’ arguments here are quite valid. Without God’s Presence among the people, it will be impossible for the Jews to realize their mission. And since the people exist only in order to fulfill that mission, the Divine Presence will not leave the Jewish people.
(15) And he said to Him, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place”: If God himself (and the ongoing Divine revelation) will not be with the Jews, then it is better for them to not go anywhere. Because the mission in the Land of Israel would in any event not be fulfilled.
(16) For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?: The purpose of history is to enable all of mankind to connect with God’s overt Divine presence. None of the peoples of the world has as yet been able to ascend to that level – the nations are governed through angels. But although that is the norm for all other nations, the Jewish people are special. They need God’s constant, direct presence.
Every nation has its angel. That is, the life of the people is governed solely by the laws of nature and the ordinary flow of events. But if the Jews too are subject only to the laws of nature, their chosenness makes no sense. A typical, ordinary people cannot realize its mission to correct humanity. The Jews are an “abnormal” people chosen by God, and God Himself must therefore lead them, without resorting to angels. Accordingly, the history of this people is quite different from those of all the other nations of the world. Moses asks God to restore this “abnormality” to the Jewish people. And God does so.
(17) And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked: The Almighty revises His decision and fulfills Moses’ two requests: to go Himself among the people, and to distinguish Israel from the other nations.
For you have truly gained My favor: “Your actions are commendable.” God has recognized Moses’ gratitude as the basis for spiritual advancement and, consequently, as a justification for Moses receiving God’s grace, the Jewish people too should receive the same.
And I have singled you out by name: “I understand well the situation with you (and with the Jewish people).” This is the recognition by God that it is impossible for the Jewish mission to be realized without God’s direct Divine presence. And for the sake of realizing this mission, He will go among them.
(18) He said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!”: Having resolved the issues concerning the Jewish nation, Moses now speaks of his own needs and desires.
God is glorified by bringing man closer to Him and by creating mutual understanding with him. As history progresses mankind gradually comes nearer to God, understanding increases, and reverence of God thereby increases. Therefore, “beholding the Presence of the Almighty” means understanding the meaning of the entire past and future history of mankind, revealing the ways in which the world will come to glorify God, and understanding the meaning of all historical events.
The Midrash says: When Moses saw that it was a moment of grace, and that his words were well received, he asked for more than just forgiveness and restoration of the prior status. God does not condemn Moses for this, because there is nothing wrong with making such a request. Although it cannot be fully realized, the aspiration itself is extremely important, because it truly advances humanity, as individuals and also collectively.
(19) And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you”: I cannot show you everything in detail, but I will pass it by you, to give you a general understanding.
All My goodness: I will show you that the true motivation behind all My decisions is not to punish the villains, but to exercise mercy.
And I will proclaim before you the name Lord: The level of revelation that you receive is “Lord” (the Tetragrammaton). This corresponds to what the Torah said above (6:3): “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘Lord.’ ”
And the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show: Literally, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” I decide this for My own reasons, which are beyond the comprehension of man. Therefore, I cannot reveal it even to you; man is not able to grasp the meaning of Divine decisions.
(20) But,” He said, “you cannot see My face”: Earlier the Torah said: “Then Moses and Aaron … ascended; and they saw the God of Israel” (24:9-10). But here, “Man may not see Me and live.” How are we to reconcile these two passages?
The difference between these two situations is in the Divine names and the levels of providence. Moses and the elders could see at the level of Elohei Yisrael, “the God of Israel.” The name Elohim, “God,” represents the category of “local justice, reward, and punishment.” And yet, no person can see God at the level of “the Lord” (the Tetragrammaton) – the Divine control of the entire universe as a whole.
For man may not see Me and live: As noted above, for a human to “behold God’s Presence” would mean that God was revealing to him the meaning of the entire progression of history. A person can understand the past, but no human being can be allowed to see the meaning of the future, because such knowledge of how future events will develop is incompatible with life as it must be lived. Knowing the future would deprive a person of his free will, render his struggles pointless, and make normal human existence impossible. This is what we mean when we say that such knowledge is “incompatible with life.”
Accordingly, to Moses too God reveals only the meaning of past events – “You will see My back” (v. 23) – that is, you will see Me as I depart, “but My face must not be seen” – you cannot know future events.
(21) And the Lord said, “See, there is a place near Me”: By agreeing to reveal to Moses even a partial understanding of history, God gives Moses “a place near Him.”
Station yourself on the rock: “On the rock” means on Mount Sinai, the place of the Giving of the Torah. From there Moses can gain proper perspective.
(22) And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by: That is, the Almighty’s Presence will be close enough for you to feel it. But you will not see it.
(23) Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back: Even this is already a great achievement, the highest level that a human being can hope to attain. The Midrash explains that God showed Moses the receding image of His Presence, that is, the meaning of past Divine control – historical events that had already happened. Moses could see only the knot at the back of the Almighty’s head tefillin – the straps that connect all things, the belts that drive the engine of history.
But My face must not be seen: Man is not granted vision to see ahead, to understand the future course of the history of the universe.
 See above, §5.5.