Seeing Hashem


To See or Not to See?

Hashem's revelation to mankind is a prevalent theme throughout Tanakh, but one which is shrouded in mystery.  Several verses speak of Hashem not only speaking to humans but also appearing to them.1 Other verses speak of individuals who merited to "see Hashem", from the elders at Sinai‎2 to Mikhaihu, Yeshayahu, Yechezkel, and Daniel, all of whom even describe what they saw.3  What, though, does it mean for Hashem to reveal Himself or for man to see the Divine? If Hashem has no corporeal form, what is there to see?

Moreover, does not Hashem Himself say that it is impossible to see Him and live?!4  Even Moshe is told in Shemot 33:20:


וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת פָּנָי כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי.

He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.”

How are we to understand the seeming contradiction between this verse and all the others which imply that seeing Hashem is possible?  Can a mortal see Hashem or not?  Under what circumstances will this lead to death? Finally, does the root "ראה" mean the same thing in all of these verses, or should it be understood literally in some cases but metaphorically in others? If the latter, what does it connote?

Moshe's Request: הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ

The context of Hashem's declaration that no mortal can see Him is Moshe's request after the Sin of the Golden Calf, "הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ". Hashem's full response reads:


(כ) וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת פָּנָי כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי. (כא) וַיֹּאמֶר י״י הִנֵּה מָקוֹם אִתִּי וְנִצַּבְתָּ עַל הַצּוּר. (כב) וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ עַד עׇבְרִי. (כג) וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת כַּפִּי וְרָאִיתָ אֶת אֲחֹרָי וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ.

(20) He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” (21) Hashem also said, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. (22) It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; (23) then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

The conversation is not easy to comprehend, with almost every sentence raising questions:

  • "הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ" – What does Moshe mean by this request; what is he asking Hashem to show him?  When both he and Hashem speak of the Divine "כבוד" to what are they referring?
  • "וְרָאִיתָ אֶת אֲחֹרָי וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ" – What is the meaning of Hashem's reply; what does it mean that Moshe will be permitted to see Hashem's "back" but not His "face"?  What do these terms signify in the context of an unlimited Being? Does Hashem have a front or back?
  • Is Moshe unique? –  Is Moshe's being granted permission to see Hashem in this story a unique case, or might there be other exceptional circumstances where others, too, are allowed to see Hashem?  Is it only "Hashem's face" that is off-limits, while other aspects might be seen?

Revelation at Sinai

The descriptions of Hashem's revelation to the Children of Israel at Sinai also raise questions regarding the extent of man's ability to see God.  On one hand, Shemot 19:11 states that Hashem will descend "לְעֵינֵי כׇל הָעָם" and Devarim 5:4 adds, "פָּנִים בְּפָנִים דִּבֶּר י״י עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר", describing the event as a "face to face" encounter. Yet, on the other hand, in Shemot 19:21 Moshe is instructed to warn the nation against gazing at the Divine, "פֶּן יֶהֶרְסוּ אֶל י״י לִרְאוֹת", and in Devarim 4:15 Moshe emphasizes, "לֹא רְאִיתֶם כׇּל תְּמוּנָה בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר י״י אֲלֵיכֶם בְּחֹרֵב", explicitly stating that that no image was seen. If the nation only heard Hashem's voice at Sinai, as is repeatedly stressed in Devarim 4, what, then, does the term "פָּנִים בְּפָנִים" mean?  What was the nature of the revelation at Sinai?

Additional Divine Encounters

Other verses which touch on Hashem's revelation raise similar issues to those discussed above:

  • "כְּבוֹד י״י" – Many verses5 speak of "כְּבוֹד י״י" appearing to the people. What does this term signify?  Is it identical to the "כבוד" that Moshe requested to see?  But, if so, how is it that the nation sees this on a regular basis, yet Moshe was not allowed to do so?
  • The cloud – Often Hashem, or His glory, is said to descend or appear in a cloud.  What is the function of this cloud?  Is it meant to obscure the vision from onlookers, lest they see and die?  Or, is the cloud meant, not to hide, but instead to contain or represent Hashem's presence?
  • The elders at Sinai – Shemot 24, after describing the elders' vision of Hashem at Sinai, states: "וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ".  Does this imply that the nobility were really deserving of punishment for seeing Hashem, but for some reason were spared? What else might the words "לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ" mean?6
  • "וּתְמֻנַת י״י יַבִּיט" – In Bemidbar 12:6-8, in speaking about Moshe's uniqueness, Hashem says that, in contrast to other prophets, Moshe was able to see a picture of Hashem. How can this be reconciled on the one hand with the fact that other prophets, too, appear to see images of Hashem, suggesting that Moshe was not singular in this regard, and on the other hand with the fact that Moshe himself was told that he cannot see Hashem?