Moshe smashed the first set of tablets when he saw a golden calf had been made and sacrifices were being offered to it while he was up on the mountain. He had to plead with G-d to not destroy the people, and to forgive them again.
Moshe had a conversation with G-d which led R’ SR Hirsch to comment that it goes into areas at the farthest limits of man’s knowledge. The passage indicates that man is neither capable nor allowed to go beyond the limits, alluding to a supernatural domain beyond our understanding. Moshe asked G-d to reveal His ways. Rambam commented that Moshe was mystified by the way that Divine justice combined merciless punishment and magnanimous forgiveness, and how the balance between these two opposite consequences was achieved. Moshe said “make Your way known to me” so that he could find favour in G-d’s eyes and lead G-d’s people well. Ramban commented that Moshe wanted to perceive G-d’s Unity: to comprehend that what appears to man as good and evil, as justice and love, all emanate from the Creator.
Moshe made a further request that G-d show him His glory. G-d answered “I shall make all My goodness pass before you, I shall call out with the Name G-d before you, I shall show favour when I choose to show favour, and mercy when I choose to show mercy”. R’ Meir commented that this verse showed that G-d refused Moshe’s request, whereas the alternative view is that mercy might be shown to the son of a righteous man even though he himself was less righteous, or even wicked. G-d then said that Moshe would “not be able to see My face” meaning the essence of His Being. R’ SR Hirsch explained that these words indicated that the highest level of knowledge that a human being can attain is the contemplation of the human condition from G-d’s point of view. There is one place from which man can have access to the discovery of the truth. That, according to R’ Eli Munk is the place where someone close to G-d may perceive the total picture of human life. Chatam Sofer commented that no human being has the capacity to directly know the reasons underlying Divine decrees. It is only with hindsight through the effects of G-d’s acts that man is able to glimpse G-d’s motives.
When Moshe was back on the mountain with the second carved tablets, G-d passed over His essential being and proclaimed the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Moshe was able to ask for forgiveness for the people and “make us Your heritage”. Then G-d said that He would seal a covenant “before the entire people”. There should be no idolatry and no intermarriage. The festivals should be observed with offerings and the Shabbat with rest. When Moshe came down from the mountain his face was glowing. He taught the people all that G-d had spoken to him.
The Torah called Moshe a man of G-d, because he could grasp the work of G-d and bring it back to earth.