Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tissa 5764/ March 13, 2004


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




You Cannot See My Face


Dr. Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

Hebrew and Jewish Studies,

University College, London




The dialogue between the Lord and Moses at the end of chapter 33 (12-23) is notoriously difficult, but the height of difficulty is to be found in the final verse:


"You will see My back; but My face must not be seen" (Ex.33:23).


Most of the classical commentators seem to see this verse in isolation from its context. It is indeed the climax of Hashem ' s response to Moshe, after the sin of the molten calf, and implies that Moshe will see only part of the Glory of Hashem and that will be that.


The well-known comment in Rashi, based on Berakhoth 7A, explains that Moshe will see the knot of the Tefillin at the rear of the Divine head, that and no more. Ramban, in the mystical track (derekh) of his commentary, suggests that there is a parallel with Psalms 139: 5, "You hedge me before and behind" to show that there are, as it were, two faces to Hashem, facing both east and west, and Moshe will only see one of them. In less specific terms Cassuto in his commentary to Exodus ( ad.loc) says that "figurative expressions are being used" and the reference is to the works of Hashem, which will be visible, while his essential nature will not be.


These explanations, at the extremes of the eleventh and the twentieth centuries, look at the verse in terms of physical space; there is a back (or one face) which is visible to Moshe, and a front (another face) which is not. Rashi, based on the Talmud, is completely physical, Cassuto less so, but still bound to the spatial dimension, as indeed the verse implies with the wording "back" and "face". In no case is the explanation tied to the specific context, nor is it clear how Moshe's vision of Hashem answers the questions raised by the Torah context. We shall attempt to see how this verse can be more intimately tied to its surroundings and in the process look for another explanation.


Moshe is on the mountain when Hashem tells him that the people have made a molten calf and he is to go down to sort things out. Hashem threatens to consume the people and set Moshe up alone to become a great nation (Ex. 32:10). Moshe turns the argument against Hashem. How can He allow the Egyptians to see Him destroy in the wilderness the very people that He brought out of Egypt? (32:12) With this argument, Moshe has succeeded in making Hashem change his mind, as it were, but not completely so.


When Moshe comes down and sees their sin, he arranges for some of the people to be punished, and again pleads with Hashem not to destroy them all. Moshe asks Hashem to forgive them and, if not, to blot him, Moshe, out of the Torah (32:32). Hashem refuses both requests but postpones any punishment for the time being, and instructs Moshe to carry on leading the people, with Hashem's angel going before them (32:34). Hashem explains that because of His great anger with them, it would be too dangerous for Him to remain in their midst, thus it will be His angel who will lead them to the land of milk and honey (33:2,3).


This is good news mixed with bad. The bulk of the people will not be destroyed but it will not be Hashem Himself who will lead them out of the wilderness. Due to Hashem's anger at the incident of the molten calf, the situation has become so dangerous that all symbols of the Shekhina must be removed out of the Israelite camp. The people remove their sacred personal symbols (33:5, 6) and Moshe moves the Ohel Moed outside the confines of the camp (33:7).


Hashem's withdrawal from the camp creates an inconsistency that Moshe brings to His attention. On the one hand, Moshe says, because I have found favor with You, You have chosen to lead the people out of Egypt; while on the other hand, You refuse to say that You will accompany us any further (33:12). Hashem sees the force of this argument, He relents and agrees to go with Moshe and help him. But His reply is ambiguous (33:14); it does not specifically include the people, and Moshe is not convinced. He tries again. He says to Hashem, if You do not go with us, it is not worth our while to go at all. If we really have Your favor, and we really are Yours, I and the people, how will that become known to others, if You do not go up with us? (33:15,16).


Hashem agrees to go with the people, but Moshe wants proof, a sign from Hashem, and he asks to see His presence. If granted, that would be proof that Hashem will go with them. Why that would be proof is not yet clear. Eventually Hashem agrees and finds a cleft in the rock, from which Moshe can observe the Shekhina, but he will only see the back of Hashem, he will not see His face (33:23). Moshe is satisfied with this arrangement. Here we are at the climax: Why is Moshe content only to see the back of Hashem, and what does that mean?


We suggest the expressions of "back" and "face" are to be understood in terms of time and not of space. It is well known that the Israelite people, and others, move forward in time facing the past, while their back is to the future. So much is clear from the expressions for the past such as "hadesh yamenu keqedem" (Lam.5:21) or literally, "renew our days as in front of us"; and for the future "be'aharit hayamim" (Dan.10:14) or literally, "at the back of days". Similar concepts of the past and future obtained in Mari in the second millenium BCE (A. Malamat, Mari and the Early Israelite Experience,

1989, p. 68). One could explain this in English by saying that the past is before us, while the future is unseen, thus behind us. This makes good sense-- we cannot see the future, we have our back to it, while we can see the past-- it lies before us.


Let us turn now to Hashem's reply to Moshe. You will see My back, means you will see My future. You will see with your own eyes that I shall carry out My promise to lead you and the people into Canaan. This is the assurance Moshe has been seeking. But, says Hashem, you will not see My face, meaning you will not see My past. You will not, you cannot, and you never will, see My origin. With this, Moshe is satisfied.