Thursday, February 17, 2011

Moshe's request to know G-d and the 13 midos

The Rishonim struggle to understand what Moshe's request for Hashem to reveal his presence to him, "Hodi'eini na es derachecha..." meant and why that request was made only following Moshe's tefilos to forgive cheit ha'eigel. Rambam (Yesodei haTorah 1:10) writes that Moshe was asking to know Hashem in a very deep way, with the same degree of certainty that a person has when he sees his friend he recognizes and knows that it can be no one else (the Rambam's analogy fits his idea that knowledge of G-d means knowing what G-d is not; we can never know anything about G-d or describe him as having any specific attribute, as the Rambam discusses in Moreh). Ra'avad on the spot asks two questions: 1) Didn't Moshe already attain this level of knowledge at har Sinai during mattan Torah? 2) How does Hashem's response - 'V'chanosi es asher achon v'rrichamti es asher aracheim" - relate to Moshe's request?

Ra'avad interprets Moshe's request differently. Hashem had told Moshe that because of the cheit ha'eigel, only an angel, but not Hashem himself, would guide Bnei Yisrael. Moshe's request of "Hodieini na..." was a demand to restore Hashem original personal hashgacha immediately, not only when Bnei Yisrael would get to Eretz Yisrael. Hashem partially consented. "V'richamtei es asher arachem," Hashem promised mercy to those who were worthy, but not all.

The Kesef Mishneh answers the Ra'avad's questions. 1) Moshe did not necessarily attain already at Har Sinai the level of knowledge he now sought. 2) Hashem meant that the knowledge Moshe requested could only come as a matanah, a gift from Hashem. V'chanosi es asher achon -- I, Hashem, decide who to grant that gift to. I wonder what the Rambam would make of this defense in his name. The Rambam is the champion of the intellect as the vehicle to come closer to Hashem. Does it make sense that the end game of the grand quest for intellectual dveikus is completely unattainable -- true knowledge of G-d on the highest level comes *not* from the mind, but comes from without, only as a gift?

What I also find interesting is that the Ra'avad's explanation implicitly answers a question that he conspicuously never articulates in his critique of the Rambam. How does the Rambam's interpretation fit the context of the parsha? Why would Moshe davka now ask for this supreme gift of knowledge? Granted, as the KS"M writes, there is no proof that this gift of knowledge was already bestowed at mattan Torah, but would not that have been the more appropriate time for Moshe to seek such knowledge? At least on a level of pshat in the parsha, the Ra'avad approach seems to have the advantage.

I want to leave off with an amazing comment of the Derashos haRan (in Derush #4) on the topic of the 13 midos. The Ran interprets Moshe's request, similar to the Ra'avad, as a supplication for Hashem's personal hashgacha in place of that of a malach. But what of the danger that hashgacha would bring? Sin done in the presence of the King is far more serious a crime than sin done in the presence of a mere angel. Therefore Moshe asked, "Hodi'eini na es derachecha," show me the path by which the people can be forgiven should they slip. Hashem responded, "V'chanosi es asher achon," I will forgive those who deserve forgiveness. Moshe still was not satisfied. Moshe wanted a guarantee of forgiveness for all, under any and all circumstances. This is the covenant of the 13 middos. Hashem promised that at this moment of creating this bris of the 13 midos that he will do a miracle unseen before by any nation or people. What is this great miracle that surpassed (so writes the Ran) even yetzi'as Mitzrayim and the splitting of Yam Suf? The Ran explains that as great as the exodus and the splitting of the sea was, both events were a reflection of G-d's will to save Bnei Yisrael. G-d's will is of course supreme and trumps all else. The 13 midos that elicit Divine forgiveness do not work because of G-d's will to forgive -- they work because of our desire to ask for forgiveness! Even if G-d is kavyachol angry, the 13 midos trump even the Divine will to punish and lead instead to rachmanus, forgiveness, reconciliation. A great idea to return to again in a few months when we get closer to Tishrei (someone remind me of this post ; )


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  2. I think that to understand the Rambam, you need not only YhT 1:10, but also MN 1:54.