Pinny Arnon

The Golden Calf and Why We Can’t See God

The Zohar teaches that from the moment that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit on the first day of their creation, all of humanity was covered with a spirit of impurity which prevented us from seeing the truth of the G-dliness within us and within everything. At the giving of the Torah, this impurity was finally removed, and for the first time since the fall on the first day of creation, we could truly see. Unfortunately, the blinding spirit of impurity returned soon after with the sin of the golden calf, which we read about in this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa. Subsequent to the golden calf, our vision of G-d’s infinite Oneness has remained stunted throughout history.

But why did Hashem “punish” us with the inability to perceive Him? Wasn’t it our myopia that caused us to falter, and wouldn’t we be more likely to fulfill the divine will properly if we could see G-d clearly?

In the immediate aftermath of the golden calf, G-d provides an answer to this perplexing question. Moses, clearly bewildered by the sequence of events, asks G-d to explain Himself to him.

:וְעַתָּה אִם־נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת־דְּרָכֶךָ וְאֵדָעֲךָ
V’atta im na matzasi chein b’einecha hodieini na es derachecha v’eidaacha.
If I have indeed found favor in your eyes, let me know Your ways, so that I may know You.
(Exodus 33:13)

G-d accedes to Moses’ request. He invites Moses to come up once again onto the mountain, and there He will cause His glory to pass before him. But Moses will be granted only a vision of G-d’s back, not His face.

:וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאת אֶת־פָּנָי כִּי לֹא־יִרְאַנִי הָֽאָדָם וָחָי
Vayomer lo tuchal liros es panai ki lo Yirani ha’adam va’chai.
And He said to him, “You will not be able to see my face, for man shall not see Me and live.”
(ibid 33:20)

Why is it that Moses is not permitted to see G-d’s face? What does this mean that a person can experience G-d’s back, but cannot perceive His face and continue to remain alive?

G-d’s face represents His full and complete revelation, whereas His back represents a more shrouded and limited view and understanding of Him. The inability to see G-d’s face informs us that if we were to experience the full, unimpeded revelation of His infinite reality, which is His complete unity, then we would understand that nothing else, including ourselves, truly exists at all. The verse does not read ‘if man sees Me he will perish,’ but rather “man shall not see Me and live.” In other words, it is not that seeing G-d’s face would cause one to die, but rather that in the presence of His “face” one does not, and never did, truly live. We cannot see His face because in the presence of His face, which is the manifestation of His infinite presence, there is nothing else, and therefore no “we” at all.

With this, we can answer our question of why G-d limits our vision – because if He didn’t, we would cease to be. Therefore, we understand that this is not a punishment per se, but rather it is a condition for our continued existence. The act of the creation of the world was an act of concealment. In order to allow for the existence of any seeming other, G-d had to allow Himself to be unseen.

The creation of the world and the giving of the Torah were both intended to infuse G-dliness into a realm of darkness. But Hashem is “unable” to do this task Himself. In order be seen in a place where He was previously unseen, He must create limited beings who are capable of being blind to His presence. In this context, the “sin” of the golden calf can be understood as the indication that the world was not yet ready for the clarity that will permeate the messianic future. It was therefore the mechanism through which blindness was re-introduced after the giving of the Torah offered unlimited vision. It is the role of humankind, through the study and practice of Torah, to hone this vision so that ultimately every one of G-d’s creations will perceive Him within them and within everything they encounter.

– Excerpted in part from Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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