A Radiant Face

Ki Tissa By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 18, 2006 / 5766

Coverings, especially of the face, are the theme of the hour in the Jewish calendar. The opening of this week began with our celebration of Purim. At the core of the holiday is the notion of hiddenness. God never explicitly appears in the entire ten chapters of the megillah; and the holiday is celebrated through festive costumes in which we mask, or cover, our true selves. This notion of covering continues thematically in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Ki Tissa. At the conclusion of our parashah, Moshe descends from Mount Sinai with a new set of hewn tablets in hand. The Torah narrates, “Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant [karan or], since he had spoken with God. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near to him” (Exodus 34:29–30). Although this verse is renowned as the source for the portrayal of Moses with horns in medieval European art, what do these same verses come to teach us as Jews? How can we better understand this divine light? And to what extent may our faces today radiate that same sacred light?

Rashi, the prolific French commentator, explains, “The light was radiant and brilliant like a horn. From where did Moshe merit these ‘horns’ of glory? Our rabbis teach, ‘from the light that God’s hand transmitted to Moshe’s face, as it is said, ‘and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by'” (Exodus 33:22). For Rashi and the rabbinic source quoted, Moshe’s radiance is derived explicitly from the “touch” of God experienced when Moshe requests to see God’s presence. Given that Moshe is proscribed from seeing God’s face (since, as the Torah tells us, one cannot see God’s face and live), a compromise is made and Moshe is allowed to see God’s back, albeit protected by God’s sheltering hand. It is this protective, intimate encounter that illuminates Moshe.

Alternatively, one is presented with a different understanding by B’midbar Rabbah, a compilation of midrashim on the book of Numbers. Sparked by Proverbs 6, “a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light,” the midrash queries, “Why is Torah called light? For Torah illuminates and guides a human since Torah teaches one how to behave according to the will of God. Therefore, the reward of Torah is great” (BR 14:10). For this midrash, the learning of Torah imparts illumination. The Torah’s light blazes a path through the complexities of the modern world. And more than that, the Torah truly has the capacity to impart a radiant spiritual light on those who invest the time to learn. More often than not, I have been privileged to see the light of Torah in the faces of my students. I can only imagine that this radiance is the very same light that illuminated the countenance of Moshe.

And perhaps, even more powerfully, our parashah comes to teach us a lesson on Torah pedagogy. We are told that when the Israelites saw Moshe’s radiance, “they shrank from coming near to him.” Perhaps, by virtue of Moshe’s great learning, the people were intimidated by Moshe’s presence. But what did Moshe do in response to the people’s fear? Exodus 34:31 elaborates, “Moshe called to them… and Moshe spoke to them.” To Moshe’s credit, he realized his own intimidation factor; and to bring people near, he called to them, spoke to them, and even veiled his own face so as to diminish his radiance. Moshe’s actions speak to his unique humility and profound sensitivity. May each of us, both in the role of teacher and student, learn from Moshe’s brilliant example.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.