June 24, 2024
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Why We Value Understanding Hashem

According to the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:10), Moshe’s request of Hashem to “show me your honor (way)” (Shemot 33:18) captures his heartfelt request to understand Hashem in an unparalleled manner, to see Him objectively and not be limited by human lenses.

The Ra’avad (quoted by the Kesef Mishneh, ibid.) attacks the Rambam’s interpretation. He argues that such a request is unbefitting of Moshe. Moshe would have never been so selfish as to desire such a profound comprehension of Hashem. The Ra’avad buttresses his position with a midrash stating that celestial angels wanted to expel Moshe from the heavens because of the incredible insight that he had already achieved. That being the case, it is incomprehensible that Moshe could have selfishly requested more.

The Rambam argues that Moshe correctly requests a meta-human understanding of Hashem, whereas the Ra’avad thinks that inappropriate. In short, there is a philosophical debate whether it is praiseworthy or inappropriate to make such a strong request. What is the logic for each opinion? What is really behind this machloket?

The Ra’avad’s attack seems very difficult to understand at first glance. Is it bad to desire a greater understanding of Hashem? It is unprecedented to critique one who wants to accomplish more mitzvot, learn more Torah or reach higher levels in avodat Hashem. Why then does the Ra’avad think it is critique-worthy of Moshe to request a greater comprehension of Hashem?

Perhaps the answer for the Ra’avad lies in his understanding of why the Torah values knowledge of the Divine. In truth, understanding Hashem can be understood in one of two ways. One potential viewpoint is that philosophical truth is intrinsically valuable. In other words, knowledge of Hashem is praiseworthy because it has inherent meaning. Alternatively, perhaps knowledge of Hashem is meaningful because Hashem declared it so. According to this idea, we only value knowledge of Hashem because it is a fulfillment of Hashem’s command.

According to the first model, because the value is intrinsic, there is no concept of wanting to know Hashem “too much,” and the Rambam therefore applauds Moshe for such a request. The Ra’avad, by contrast, may accept the second approach, arguing that we value knowledge of Hashem only because Hashem instructed us to value it. It follows that requesting an understanding of Hashem, which by definition was never intended for man, is not obeying His command and is therefore inappropriate and selfish. Hashem commanded man to understand Him as best as a man could. A request for more is not what Hashem wants and is therefore, according to the Ra’avad, not the correct understanding of Moshe’s request.


Rabbi Jesse Horn is a senior ra”m at Yeshivat Hakotel and program director of Mizrachi Mechanchim. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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