Parashat Ki Tissa 5769

Exodus 30:11–34:35
March 14, 2009
18 Adar 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS.

The unknown can be frightening. This week in particular, beyond the unknowns of the economic crisis that grips the world, we encounter insecurity in the Purim story, with God's hand seemingly absent from directing the narrative. There is an uncertainty that the unknown breeds; we feel it deep within ourselves and struggle to overcome ambiguity through a search for assurance. What is and remains true is that the lesson of the day is consistent with the lesson of history—none of us is immune from the insecurity of the unknown. Even Moshe.

Moses said to the Lord: "See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,' but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed gained My favor.' Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor." (Exod. 33:12–13)

After all of the immediate interactions he has had with God throughout his leadership, Moshe still, even at this point in the Exodus, struggles for a true, unambiguous knowledge of God. Although he is given an experience of God, his eventual request is rebuffed by God (Exod. 33:20). Humanity cannot have an unambiguous experience of God and live to tell about it. While it may seem to be a reasonable justification, what remains is that the uncertainty lingers.

Or so we think.

Toward the end of the parashah, we read that Moses came down from Sinai with the second set of tablets in hand and approached the people. But something was different about Moses—something that frightened the people. He looked different: U-Moshe lo yada ki keren or panav be-dibro ito (Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him) (Exod. 34:29).

Commentators have looked at this phrase and wondered what had happened that Moses did not know that his face was shining. Had God done something to Moses? Had Moses's altered appearance existed from his first interactions with God? Was it a physiological reaction to the desert air?

The Talmud in Masechet Betiza uses our verse as a proof text for an intriguing halakhah. On the question of whether someone has to inform another of a gift, Rabbi Hama be-Rebi Hanina states that it is permissible to give an anonymous gift to someone because, "Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant." The discussion continues, though, with an opposing opinion that if you feed another's child, you must find some way of informing the parent of that child (the Talmud suggests smearing rouge and oil on the child's head). Presumably, when the child returns home the parent will question, "Who smeared you with rouge and oil?!" To which the child will respond, "Oh yes, Mr. Cohen, and he gave me some food too" (16a). The parallel to Moses is striking and amusing. God has altered Moses's appearance so that Aaron and the elders will look at him and inquire as to what happened on Sinai.

From the preceding verse, we know that God gave Moses no food or drink: "And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water" (Exod. 34:28). So what was the gift God gave Moses?

We have a clue from our verse U-Moshe lo yada ki keren or panav be-dibro ito (Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with him) (Exod. 34:29). The phrase be-dibro ito ("he had spoken with him") is intriguing. Who is speaking with whom here?

Commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bahya look at this phrase and question if God is speaking to Moses or Moses is speaking to God. Its ambiguity stages an amorphous interrelationship that is echoed in two other verses with a similar construct.

The ambiguity paints us a picture of Moses and God in an intertwining dialogue that seems the epitome of Martin Buber's I-Thou relationship. A defining characteristic of this connection is that one can only experience an I-Thou relationship if one is unaware of the fact. Once you become cognizant of an I-Thou relationship, it is over. It is a relationship that can only occur when you are unaware of it.

This was God's gift to Moses. Earlier, Moses had begged God for certainty. As we discussed, his request was seemingly denied. From this point of view, it would seem from God's response that Moses was permitted simply an experience of God, not intimacy.

As he descended from Sinai, however, Moses was given a gift, the certainty that he could only have without realizing it: a true I-Thou experience. The relationship transpired in their conversation—be-dibro ito—in the communication that was God transmitting Torah to Moses and his writing of the second set of tablets.

Moses did have, as we all can, a moment of intimacy with God. That moment for Moses was when he became enfolded in a dialogue with God, unable to discern who was speaking with whom. The radiance that shone from his face was that of the assurance of God's presence and existence. Providence was real, relationship was possible, and the unknown was eventually knowable. This was Moshe's gift—this and the hope for better days for us.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.