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Exodus 33:28 and 23:

לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי:  כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי.

וְרָאִיתָ, אֶת-אֲחֹרָי; וּפָנַי, לֹא יֵרָאוּ.

Looking at these verses G-d clearly says that no one can see His panav and live, thus Moshe can only see ‘achorai’ but ‘panai’ must not be seen, says G-d.

Yet we see Moshe speaking פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים many times.

The word ‘panai’ in this context seems to be the opposite of ‘achorai’, but what does it mean. It can’t mean ‘face’ as flesh and blood, and it’s clearly not the same as in those occasions one is speaking face-to-face as it is clear that people like Ya’akov and Moshe for example didn’t die in those occasions.

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  • @RenatoGrun in the case with Ya’akav he wrestled a man, later referred to as a malach, but here it’s clear that HaShem Himself makes makes Moshe see something, namely His achor and not His panav. Besides the focus here is on panav as a opposite of what is considered achor and visa versa. I would really like to know how to define these.
    – Levi
    May 29 '20 at 7:20
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Your question can be understood by looking at what the Holy One, blessed be He answers to Moshe in Shemot 33:17:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה גַּ֣ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֛ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֑ה כִּֽי־מָצָ֤אתָ חֵן֙ בְּעֵינַ֔י וָאֵדָעֲךָ֖ בְּשֵֽׁם׃

That G-d said He would connect (that the root of וָאֵדָעֲךָ֖ is ידע, like in Adam knew Chava) with Moshe Rabbeinu by way of (His) name.

And this introduces a very important concept from Jewish teaching that we know and connect with G-d by way of His name. This is emphasized by the communal response by many to blessings pronounced aloud by the Shaliach Tzibbur, the communal prayer leader, namely Baruch Hu u'baruch Sh'mo (Blessed is He and His name).

G-d, at His essence and being, transcends the ability of all created and/or emanated things to truly connect in any way. This relates to all creation being to some degree finite, while G-d is infinite.

But G-d makes it possible for His creation to connect by way of His name, that He and His name are one. This idea is often described in kabbalistic and chassidic teaching with the allegory of a garment which covers its wearer. The garment is compared to His name.

In this particular quotation you reference, it is emphasizing the idea that in Hebrew language, there are many ways to understand and comprehend words and names. One commonly used way is to view words and names in terms of beginning, end and middle (ראש, סוף ותוך).

But in this case, the emphasis is on the internal aspect (called פנימיות or פני) and the external aspect (called חיצוניות or אחור). Discussion of this concept can be found in Sefer Adir B'Marom by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, page 92 and also in the HaGa'ot of Rabbi Moshe Zacuto to Sefer Mevo Sha'arim, note 5.

In Shemot 33:19, G-d explained to Moshe that He would grant Moshe's request and cause all of His good (טוב) to pass before Moshe. And this refers to the external aspect of the name which G-d used to bring about the creation. That name is אהוה, which has a gematria of 17 (טוב) and is hidden within the first sentence of the written Torah (Bereshit 1:1):

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

That the first letters of the words, **אֵ֥"ת הַ"שָּׁמַ֖יִם וְ"אֵ֥ת הָ"אָֽרֶץ, are the first two and last two letters of that name and are the external aspect or אחור of that complete name. And so G-d was telling Moshe that He would reveal this to Moshe Rabbeinu.

But the inner aspect of that name could not be revealed to Moshe because of the decree of death made against Adam and Chava who together as one flesh are known as HaAdam (האדם).

That these inner letters of G-d's name reveal G-d's oneness in His creation. And only when the blemish made by Adam and Chava has been corrected will G-d's oneness truly be revealed within His creation and death be removed from the world. Until that circumstance, the inner letters of G-d's name, the Yud and Heh, remain apart like is indicated in the words for husband (אי"ש) and wife (אש"ה).

But when husband and wife are one flesh, then G-d's oneness, His Shechinah, is revealed like is stated by Rabbi Akiva in Sotah 17a.

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Rav Hirsch points out that this means that Moshe Rabbeinu is able to perceive (see)in the maximum way that a human being can understand the ways of Hashem. However,

V.20 gives the reason for not granting the request, because its nature lies beyond the border-line which is drawn as the highest possible attainment of the human mind here on earth.

The the term panim el panim is the idiom for the highest level a human mind can achieve, while Ki Sisa 33:20

(And He said, "You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live."

Means that it is impossible for the human mind to perceive and understand the essence and meaning of Hashem. An attempt to reach beyond the human limits would destroy a person's mind.

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Each occurence of these words ('see', 'panav' and 'achorai') must been understood individually and in context because they have multiple levels of meaning. The Rambam comments both passages and its wording: according to him, neither the notion of seeing, the notion of face and the back of Hashem are supposed to be understood literally, but metaphorically.

While the verse "no one can see His panav and live" the word "see" means "to comprehend" (like one who says "I see the truth") and "panav" means His reality as it truly is (something not subject of intelectual apprehension). The expression "panim al panim", in the other hand, means without intermediators (whether forms or someone in between) to transmit His communication, such as dreams, visions or angels, etc.

To "see" the "achorai" of Hashem is meant comprehend his ways, wills and virtues (from a reflection on His deeds), as opposed to his trully being.

In order to understand the meaning of each words, one should check the meaning of each word and its proper contextual meanings. These are the words of Rambam based on his Moreh Nevuchim.

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