Being the greatest prophet of all and arguably the greatest human
being ever to have lived, we'd expect a lot from Moses. Indeed, Rambam
described Moses elsewhere as the most perfect of people, and credited
him with having actually comprehended the truth -- which was certainly
no small feat; as being the father of wisdom, prophecy, and of Torah;
as being G-d's chosen one from among humanity; and as having reached
the spiritual level of the angels.
In point of fact, Moses expected a lot from himself, and with good
reason. After all, as Rambam put it here in our text, Moses "realized
that there wasn't a single screen he hadn't rent", that is, that not a
single barrier between himself and G-d remained, and "that he'd
achieved personal and intellectual perfection". So he took a chance;
he asked to comprehend G-d. But despite his high station, Moses was
denied that, as we'll see.
Let's backtrack a bit though and detail just what set Moses' prophecy
apart from the others' as we said we would.
We're taught that Moses' prophetic process was qualitatively different
than others'. Where the other prophets were contacted either in a
dream or while in a trance, Moses prophesied in a waking, conscious
state. While the other prophets would grow terribly weak when they
prophesied, would shiver and become frightened by the encounter, Moses
never did. Whereas the others couldn't prophesy at will, and would
often have to wait for days or even years for a prophecy -- or might
not ever prophesy again -- Moses could prophesy at will. Where the
others were contacted by angels or had symbolic visions, Moses
experienced clear and literal communications from G-d Himself instead.
And whereas the others had to prepare themselves for prophecy, Moses
was always attached to G-d and thus never had to prepare himself.
Moses was clearly of a whole other order of prophet -- and of being.
So he made the unusual request we spoke of above.
He said to G-d, "Please show me Your Glory" (Exodus 33:18) -- allow me
insight into Your very Being, L-rd, as no one else had ever been
allowed. After all, hadn't he done all he could to deserve that, and
wasn't that the loftiest of goals? But G-d denied him his request (in
fact, who among us could ever imagine making such a request, let alone
expecting it to be granted?).
Why was he denied it? Because it couldn't be otherwise. After all, "he
was an intellect fixed in matter", or as Rambam explained, because "he
was human" at bottom and it was written that "No man will see (G-d)
and (yet) live" (Exodus 33:20).The point is that "the only thing still
standing between Moses and the comprehension of G-d … was a single
sheer screen"-- the fact that he was a mortal and thus imperfect.
Thus the lesson for all of us who hope for spiritual excellence is
that, indeed, none of us is perfect and that what sets us apart from
each other is our character.