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“A Man Has to Know His Limitations”

There have been many memorable movie one-liners over the years. We all have our favorites and look forward to hearing them when we watch reruns. Many of my favorites come from Marx Brothers comedies and Mel Brooks’ productions. Another comes from Clint Eastwood in one of his Dirty Harry movies. At the end of one particular movie, when the villain is finally disposed of, Inspector Callahan coolly reminds us, “A man has to know his limitations.”

In this week’s Torah reading, פרשת כי תשא, God makes a similar comment to Moshe. After the tragic event of the Golden Calf, Hashem forgives the people but He informs them that no longer will He directly lead them.  “ I shall send an angel before you…I shall not ascend among you for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I annihilate you on the way.”

When the people heard this pronouncement they became grief-stricken. They removed special crowns they had been wearing since receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai just 40 days earlier. They realized their relationship to God was now significantly altered.

However, Moshe, in his greatness as our teacher and leader, saw here an opportunity to restore the primary relationship between the people and God. How could he restore the relationship? Based on a Rashi here and the Rambam’s writing in the “Guide for the Perplexed,” my mentor and Rebbe Muvhak, HaRav Yisroel Chait, gave the following explanation.

Moshe asked God to grant him knowledge and insight into a very particular area of study. הודעני נא את דרכך “,” “Please, let me know Your ways.” According to Rashi, the subject area of Moshe’s request was the age-old question of why righteous people suffer and wicked people prosper. Through this newly acquired knowledge, Moshe would be elevated and relate to God in an even more direct and complete way. But Moshe was also part of the nation of Israel. Through his newly gained understanding, all of Israel would, thus, be elevated as well. Moshe ties the proof that his request is appropriate and will meet with success in restoring the original relationship when he says to God,  “…unless You accompany us, me and Your people… do not bring us up from here.” In response, God affirms that Moshe can achieve this knowledge. Through Moshe’s elevation, God, not an angel, will bring the nation into Canaan. God will restore completely His former relationship with the nation.

 Immediately thereafter, however, Moshe makes a second request for knowledge to God, “הראני נא את כבדך, Please show me Your glory.” What was the nature of this request for knowledge? The first request had been for understanding and insight into God’s actions. Through this knowledge, Moshe would comprehend the entire domain of “reward and punishment,” how God metes out justice. Now, what more did Moshe want to know?

What Moshe was seeking with his second request was for insight into the essence of God. This realm of knowledge pertains to God, Himself. It is the deepest level of metaphysics. To this request for knowledge, God informs Moshe, “…no man can see my face and live.” Even after great intellectual, emotional and spiritual preparation, this subject, this realm of knowledge is beyond man. Man with his finite mind cannot by definition span the infinite mind. God was telling Moshe, you have reached the limitations of man’s intellectual ability. Insights, perhaps a glimpse or two, are still possible, “I will place you in the cleft…you will see My back but My face cannot be seen.” However, true knowledge of the essence of God is impossible for any human being.

 Moshe reached the greatest heights and relationship to God possible for man. In אדון עולם, we sing, “There will never arise in Israel like Moshe, a prophet who perceived His vision clearly.” Later in פרשת בהעלותך, God informs us Moshe was “…more humble than any man on the face of the earth.”  Why? A truly humble person has an accurate view of himself against the ultimate existence, God. Part of Moshe’s greatness was recognizing and accepting his own limitations. While our society considers this notion unacceptable and does not associate it with human perfection, Dirty Harry got it right.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan