Parashat Ki Tisa possesses a strange, even paradoxical, phenomenon. Moshe is privy to a vision of the Almighty which eclipses anything even he has previously experienced, precisely at the moment when the Jewish people have plunged into a spiritual abyss in the wake of the Golden Calf. It is a strange phenomenon indeed.
It seems to me that if we want to understand this conundrum, we might do well to examine a parallel question which the Talmud poses regarding Aharon. Why is it, the Talmud inquires, that Aharon merited carrying the Choshen HaMishpat over his heart? In essence, what made Aharon the right man to be Kohen Gadol? The Talmud (Shabbat 139a) replies in the name of Rabi Melai that Aharon earned the right to enter the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Sanctum Sanctorum, at his desire (Lifnei ULifnim), for when Aharon was told by God that he had been bypassed in favor of his younger brother to be the leader of the Jewish people, he was not embittered; on the contrary, Aharon was very happy for Moshe (Shemot 4:14). In contrast to almost all of the siblings in Sefer BeReishit, who were petty and selfish, Aharon was, heroically, gracious and selfless in accepting being displaced by his younger brother.
In the wake of the Golden Calf, the Almighty offers to destroy the Jewish people (Aharon included) and build anew from Moshe (32:33). Moshe, had he accepted the deal, would have been not only the leader who took the Jews out of Egypt, but, in addition, all of the Patriarchs rolled into one. He would have led his progeny triumphantly into Israel, and, by definition, he would have secured the place of his family in the leadership of the Jewish people for all generations. It was, from Moshe’s point of view, the ultimate offer.
Moshe, as we know, turns down the offer. Like his brother before him, he is able to see beyond himself. In so doing, Moshe eventually loses his ticket to Israel, and Moshe’s own children fade into spiritual oblivion and worse. Yet ironically, in turning down the keys to the kingdom, Moshe also comes closer to God than he ever has before. In looking beyond himself, Moshe, like Aharon, achieves a new degree of closeness to God.
The fact that both Moshe and Aharon earn a certain form of closeness to God as a result of acts of selflessness seems appropriate, for God Himself has no needs, and the creation of the world itself was an act of inexplicable, unbounded kindness, a manifestation of His “Rav Chesed.” When people act selflessly, as Moshe and Aharon did, they are acting like God, and they become, eo ipso, closer to God. Aharon gets to enter the most sacred space, and Moshe merits a vision that even he, at his rarified plane, never had before.
In truth, Moshe’s selflessness reflects yet another dimension of closeness to the Almighty. If the Almighty could have fulfilled his promise to the Patriarchs to redeem their descendants by building through Moshe, than Moshe had leverage, so to speak, over God, strange as that may sound. If Moshe refused God’s offer, God would have been forced to work with the Jewish people. Yet, Moshe refused the offer in a very particular way, asking God to ‘erase’ him from his book (32:32). This line , of course, is borrowed from the Almighty Himself. When the Almighty wishes to restore peace to warring spouses, He too erases his name, which is a critical part of the Sotah process (BeMidbar 5:23). Moshe was offering to have his own name erased so the two spouses, God and the Jewish people, might be reunited.
In this sense, Moshe was fulfilling the ultimate commandment with respect to drawing close to God, namely “VeHalachta BiDerachav,” “and you should walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9). If God offers the erasure of his name when doing so will cause a restoration of marital harmony, then so should man. Thus, even as the Jewish people sink into the spiritual depths, Moshe rises to divine-like stature, achieving his finest hour. Small wonder, then, that he achieves his most direct vision of the Almighty at that very moment.