INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
PARASHAT KI TISA
The Face of Moses
By Rav Alex Israel
What happens to a person who spends forty days and forty nights talking
to God on a mountain top? Moses
testifies about himself:
"I stayed on the Mountain for forty days and forty nights. I ate no bread and drank no water."
(Deut. 9:9 and Exodus 34:28)
Is it possible for a regular
human being not to eat for forty days?
How is Moses affected by this superhuman feat? How does Moses change as a result of
his close encounter with God?
THE RADIANCE OF MOSES' FACE.
"Moses descended Mount Sinai, holding the two tablets of the testimony when he
came down from the mountain and Moses was unaware that the skin of his face was
radiant, since God had spoken to him.
Aaron and all the people saw that the skin of Moses' face was radiant and
they shrank from approaching him.
But Moses called to them, and Aaron and the leaders of the community returned to
him and he spoke to them. Afterwards
all the Children of Israel approached him and he instructed them concerning all
the Lord had spoken on Mt. Sinai.
And when Moses finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
"Whenever Moses came before the Lord to speak with Him he would remove the veil
until he came out. He would come out
and tell the Children of Israel that which he had been instructed. The Children of Israel saw Moses'
face, that the skin of his face was shining and Moses would then put the veil
back on his face until he went in to speak with Him." (Exodus 34:29-35)
This passage surely records a most remarkable and even startling event. Moses' face shines with such
brilliance that the people are afraid to approach him. Moses walks around the camp with his
face veiled. How are we to
understand this story? Where did
Moses' radiance come from? How long
did it last? Did this radiance stay
with him for the next forty years?
Let us try to find some answers. We
will examine this story from three angles, three relationships. The relationship between:
1. God and Israel;
2. Moses and the people;
3. Moses and God.
THE TABLETS OF TESTIMONY
"Because the first tablets of stone were given amidst the sounds of revelation
and this set of tablets were handed over quietly, in private, God wanted to
demonstrate that these tablets were also spoken and given in holiness, from God. It was for this reason that God made
Moses's face shine with the brightness of the Divine when he received them."
What are the tablets of stone?
In the Torah, the two tablets of stone are called "tablets of testimony"
(31:18). They are "a testimony and a
covenant between God and Israel." What do we mean by this? The tablets are a demonstration and a
sign that there is a connection, a covenant, an everlasting agreement, between
God and Israel. It is as if they are
the contract which seals a relationship.
As long as the relationship exists, the contract must be abided by.
The first tablets found their origin in the revelation at Sinai. After that overwhelming spectacle,
Moses was invited to ascend the mountain to receive "the stone tablets, the
Torah and the commands" (24:13) directly from the Almighty. But then came the episode of the
golden calf. The people betrayed God
and the laws that they had agreed to obey.
Moses came down the mountain with these symbols of covenant in his hands,
and when he "saw the calf and the dancing ... he hurled the tablets from his
hand and shattered them" (32:19).
These "tablets of testimony," symbols of the pact between God and Israel, are
now worthless. Their shattering is
an automatic response, for what is the value of a contract if the terms of the
agreement have been violated? The
Children of Israel have already broken their side of the deal.
After the episode of the calf we read about the efforts to repair the
damage. We read of Moses' earnest
prayers on behalf of the people. We
hear how he argues passionately with God.
(This is the basic content of chapter 33.)
And then, in an atmosphere of renewal, God invites Moses to reaffirm the
covenant. He is willing to give
Israel a second chance. Chapter 34
describes the terms of a renewed covenant and we hear God utter the 13
attributes of mercy indicating His desire to forgive the Children of Israel for
The symbol of healing and the repair of this relationship with God is the
creation of a second set of tablets of stone, identical to the first. These tablets are a "joint effort"
between God and Moses; Moses hewed out the stones and hauled them up to the
mountain and God wrote on them, engraving the Ten Commandments for a second
Were these tablets second rate?
Could we ever repair the damage to the relationship between Israel and
God? God for His part wishes to show
that these second tablets are no less than the earlier ones. To this end, He gives Moses an
appearance of brilliant radiance.
Now the people need only to look at Moses and realize that he has experienced
the ultimate communion with God in receiving the second covenant. These tablets have the same spiritual
importance as the earlier tablets despite the difference in the prevailing
atmosphere. The covenant is renewed.
THE EFFECTS OF THE GOLDEN CALF
Rashi, however, chooses a different focus within this story. He stresses not God nor Moses, but
the people. He notes that the
Children of Israel cannot even look at Moses' face.
"See how the enormity of the effects of sin: Before the people had embarked on
their sin, it states that 'the appearance of God's glory was like a consuming
fire at the mountain top, seen by all of Israel' (24:17) - and the people were
not shaken nor were they scared.
Now, after the golden calf, fear grips the people and they tremble from the mere
sight of the rays of light emerging from Moses."
(Rashi on 34:30)
Note that according to both interpretations that we have quoted, this
episode is a footnote to the story of the Golden Calf. For the Bekhor Shor, it tells us
about the forgiveness and restoration of relations with God that followed the
rift of the sin of the golden calf.
It is a message of repair.
According to Rashi, however, the message is different, possibly opposite. This story demonstrates that after
the Golden Calf, the people could not return to precisely the same position that
they had been in before. They were
tainted, detrimentally affected by sin.
Their spiritual refinement had been violated by their escapade with the
calf. They will have to work hard to
regain their level.
Thus far, we have dealt with this story in the context of the
relationship between God and Israel.
But this story must be examined from two other angles: the God-Moses
relationship and Moses' relationship with the people.
Let us begin with the veil.
Why did Moses wear it and when? If
God wanted the people to see his face shine, then why did Moses need to cover
his face? Different explanations are
proposed by the commentators.
Some suggest that Moses always
wore his veil when he spoke to the people.
Even when he was teaching them Torah he wore it. Their proof is from the final verse
of our parasha: "Moses would then put the veil back on his face until he went in
to speak with Him." He was only
unveiled before God. After all, it
makes sense for him to be veiled before the people. Were they not terrified when they saw
his appearance? They turned away
from him, they would not approach him.
But what was the nature of this brilliance that they saw? It was the effects of the direct
contact that Moses had had with God.
"Where did Moses receive the beams of majesty?
The Rabbis said: From the cave, as it says, 'When My glory passes by I
shall put you in the crevice of the rock' (33:22)." (Midrash Rabba)
Moses speaks to God "face to face" (33:11). He is in the most direct connection
with the Divine. Moses' glow is a
reflection of the glow of God. Moses
is "Ish Ha-Elokim" - the Man of God (Deut. 33:1).
He has the brilliance of God.
And that is why the Moses must be veiled.
"So that the people will not feast their eyes (on the Godly light)." Moses is veiled because he is
God-like and the Israelites must be cautious in their direct approach to him. For this reason Rabbeinu Bachya
explains that Moses' glow never left him:
"And this light which shone forth from his face never left him from the time
that he was on Mt. Sinai. It was
with him all his life."
A SEPARATION BETWEEN HOLY AND
But other commentators argue with this explanation. In the verses, it tells us that Moses
veiled himself only AFTER he had finished speaking with the people. Clearly, there was no barrier between
Moses and the people. The Abarbanel
suggests that the reason for the veil was so that:
"He should not use this divine light when he was eating, drinking and sleeping,
when he spoke with his wife and family about matters unrelated to Torah."
It is as if Moses uses the veil to separate his life. Holy things are done unveiled,
naturally. Speaking to God, teaching
Torah are natural processes for Moses.
But mundane life: shopping, eating, talking about the household chores
have to be done with a veiled face.
Moses must contain his spirituality at that moment. It is interesting that despite the
fact that Moses is portrayed here as naturally holy, he finds it easy to
"switch" mode. He can find his way
in "normal" life.
However, in this reading, the veil is not between Moses and the people,
but between Moses' Godliness and his human-ness.
THE BRILLIANCE OF TORAH
A third explanation sees the divine glow as a product not of God but of
"R. Yehuda ben Nachman stated in the name of Resh Lakish: There was some ink
left over on the pen which wrote the Torah.
He passed it over his head and this was responsible for the 'beams of
majesty.'" (Midrash Rabba)
This explanation suggests that the law, the Torah itself, was responsible
for this effect. The parable of the
ink drops would seem to be telling us that the source of Moses' brilliant
appearance is in the Torah itself.
Moses is the embodiment of Torah and it is in this connection that he glows. The Ibn Ezra explains that Moses's
radiance was "recharged" every time he received a new law from God. This brilliance of appearance was a
reflection of the brilliance of Torah.
We might suggest, on this basis, that Moses' face radiated only as long
as the Torah was being given. When
they left Mt. Sinai, this miraculous phenomena might have stopped. At any rate , we never hear about it
again in the Torah.
THE DISTANCING OF MOSES
In a sense, when we look back on the book of Exodus, we can identify a
progression in the life of Moses. We
can trace a process of spiritual ascent in Moses' life as he moves from private
individual to prophet to "man of God."
But we can also identify another, more tragic development. This is the distancing of Moses from
the people. His personal spiritual
progression is going to create a separation between Moses and his people.
Our first images of Moses' personality are from Shemot (Exodus) chapter 2
where we see Moses involved in three incidents.
In the first, he saves a Jewish slave from a beating by an Egyptian
slavemaster. In the second, he
attempts to settle a fight between two Israelites. In the third story, in the province
of Midyan, he intervenes to save a group of girls at the well, from some
aggressive shepherds. Moses is
portrayed in all these stories - our earliest picture of him - as one who
upholds justice, a man of action who is not afraid to pay the price for his
actions, and a man whose heart lies with the people.
It is probably for these very reasons that he is picked by God to lead
the Jewish people. At the burning
bush, God informs him that He wishes Moses to lead His people from Egypt. Moses refuses. He uses every excuse possible. In one argument, Moses tells God that
he is "slow of speech," apparently a quality which will hamper his verbal
communication. God succeeds in
appointing Moses but Aaron will be his spokesman (4:10-15). Moses will now speak through Aaron, a
first stage in his distancing from the people.
Moses' role in the exodus is the next step which portrays him as
something other than a regular human being.
Moses is given wonders and miracles to perform for all to see. At the Red Sea, it is Moses who
stretches out his hand and the sea splits.
It is Moses who later strikes the rock to give water to the camp. It is Moses who has a direct link
with God. Moses is not only a
leader; he is a prophet who seems to be able to create a miracle at will.
But Moses still has ongoing contact with the people of Israel, he hears
their worries and complaints with a smile.
He acts as judge to solve their quarrels and disagreements. "Moses sat as judge AMONG the people
... from morning until evening (18:13).
That is, until Jethro arrives.
Jethro advises Moses that it is all too much:
"You will wear yourself out, and these people as well, the task is too heavy,
you cannot bear it alone. Let me
advise you ... You represent the people before God and bring the disputes before
God ... set officers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, let them judge
the people at all times ... every major dispute will be brought to you."
And Moses accepts the idea.
Moses now has some time to think.
But he has paid a price. He has lost
is daily contact with the nation. He
is now the supreme court, he brings the most difficult cases to God. But he is at the top of a very long
chain. How many cases does he see? How many people? How many people see him? Have contact with him?
Mount Sinai clearly takes this process a stage further. He survives on the mountain for over
a month without food or water. The
people see him talk with God. It is
Moses' voice (according to some opinions) which they hear talking to them from
Mount Sinai, amplified by God. In the episode of the golden calf,
Moses is gone and they try to replace him with a god: "Let us make for ourselves
a god who will lead us, for this man Moses ... we know not what has befallen
him" (32:2). Moses is perceived in
And now, we have the veil.
Moses is not simply distanced in the mind's eye of the people. He now has a physical barrier which
separates him from them.
In a spiritual sense, Moses has reached the highest point that man can
reach. He is almost more comfortable
with God than he is with humans. His
natural, unveiled state is with God.
He shines with a divine brilliance.
But the tragic correlation is his distance from the people and his
separation from them. Moses is now
the man of God, the teacher of Torah.
Israel needs a leader such as Moses.
We could not have received the Torah without a Moses. The Torah is called the "Torah of
Moses" (Mal'akhi 3:22) because without a prophet on Moses' level there might
never have been a Torah. But at the
same time, Moses has lost one aspect of his personality - he will now find it
difficult to be the man of the people.
See Rashi on Exodus 19:19.