כִּי יָרֵא מֵֽהַבִּיט אֶל הָֽאֱ־לֹהִֽים וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה פָּנָיו
And Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look toward God.
Chazal differ regarding whether Moses’ refusal to see the Shechinah was praiseworthy or not (Brachos 7a). According to R. Yehoshua ben Korcha, Moses should not have turned away, while R. Yonasan maintains that it was Moses’ fear of looking at the Shechinah which merited his becoming the greatest of the prophets. Initially, it is difficult to fathom R. Yonasan’s opinion. Why was Moses hiding his face considered such an exalted act?
The fire of the bush was burning. The infinite light called to him. The Master of the Universe waited, yet Moses’ face remained hidden. The Master of the Universe was ready to reveal himself to Moses in His true absolute entirety. Moses had the opportunity to understand with clarity the ways of God, His justice, and how He leads creation. All questions would be answered, every teiku resolved. Instead, Moses hid his face. He did not want all questions answered and all mysteries to disappear. Moses trembled in the face of complete knowledge. What scared him?
Moses was afraid that had he not turned away he would lose the attribute of chesed, the feeling of empathy and love regarding his fellow. He was afraid to delve too deeply into God’s attribute of justice, because if he were to understand this attribute completely, he would recognize that in truth there was no evil in the world. He would know that the pain man experiences is only for his good. He would clearly understand how the deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just. (Deut. 32:4) The name E-lohim (justice) would transform to the name Havayah (mercy). Moses would then perceive the world in the same way that God looked at the world on the sixth day of creation: And God saw everything that He made and behold it was very good (Gen. 1:31); Chazal say “very good” refers to death (Bereishis Rabba 9). Were Moses to see the world in its entirety, death, sickness, poverty, suffering and loneliness would all appear good, with purpose and significance?
If he had this knowledge Moses, could not perform chesed with a poor person because he would understand why poverty was appropriate for that individual. He could not have mercy on sick people, because he would have complete understanding of why God inflicts sickness and what the objective is of such pain. He would have no understanding or sympathy for the sinner, and could not entreat God on their behalf. He would see with clarity the righteousness of God’s judgment. Moses would not be able to pray on behalf of the people because he would perceive that any such request was absurd.
Mercy and love have their basis in man’s lack of understanding, in his intellectual limits, in his childlike simplicity. The Torah commands, and he shall provide for his cure (Ex. 21:19): it is incumbent upon us to heal the sick. Do not ask, why should I cure someone whom God smites with sickness? For man, sickness is something evil, and evil must be fought. Chesed is bestowed on man with a heavy price – lack of understanding.
Moses had the choice to pursue knowledge and lose chesed, or remain without knowledge and merit chesed. He chose the latter. So great was his love for Israel that he sacrificed the most sublime of human strivings, the knowledge of God. (Beit Yosef Shaul, pg. 97-8).