In the wake of Israel’s terrible sin in worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses throws himself fully into interceding for God to forgive them. In the midst of his prayers, he begs God to “please show me Your Glory.” God does not consent and says, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:18-20)
A difficult passage in the Talmud explains that God rejected Moses’ request because of something he did earlier. When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, Moses turned aside and didn’t want to look, as it says, “And Moses hid his face, for he feared to look upon God”. (Exodus 3:6) “When I wanted (to show My face) – you didn’t want. Now when you want, I don’t want.” (Berachot 7a)
It’s impossible to imagine that God is being petty or vindictive – so what is going on?I once saw a thought about this based upon Rav Tzadok in the Tzidkas HaTzadik. The thrust of the idea is that when we are beginning a new undertaking, there is a certain amazing potential that can be available to us.
Our mystical literature speaks about Hashem gifting us with special bursts of inspiration and revelation at the seed for something new (chesed) that is later withdrawn (gevurah) and that we have to then invest ourselves to nurture and develop that original gift. But once that embryonic moment has passed, that special energy is no longer available to us. We need to seize with alacrity the incredible potential that is available when we begin something new and not let it slip through our fingers.
This is what God was telling Moshe in this Talmudic passage. When we first met at the Burning Bush, you had the potential to understand Me at the deepest of levels. I was ready to give you so much. Now, that moment has passed, and it’s no longer possible to go back to square one. God is not being vindictive – He’s just telling Moshe that you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.