Towards the end of Parashat Ki-Tisa, we read that Moshe’s face “shone” when he descended from Mount Sinai for the final time, carrying the second pair of stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved (34:29). The people were frightened by this mysterious “glow” from Moshe’s face, and so Moshe wore a veil when he spoke to them, in order to conceal his face.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 47:11) brings two views as to the origin of this radiance, one of which claims that it resulted from the ink that was left over after Moshe wrote down God’s commands. Before Moshe descended from the mountain, God had commanded him to write the series of laws that he had been taught (“ketov lekha et ha-devarim ha-eileh” – 34:27), and the Midrash teaches that a drop of ink remained in the bottle given to him for this purpose. Moshe wiped this ink on his head, resulting in a mysterious “glow” from his face.
How might we understand this concept, that Moshe’s face “glowed” as a result of the leftover ink?
Rav Heschel of Cracow, in his Chanukat Ha-Torah, suggests an answer based on the famous tradition (Hadar Zekeinim and Ba’al Ha-turim to Shemot 27:20, and Da’at Zekeinim to Shemot 32:32) that Moshe’s name was omitted from Parashat Tetzaveh as a result of his plea for Benei Yisrael after the sin of the golden calf. God sought to eradicate the nation and produce a new nation from Moshe, but Moshe interceded on Benei Yisrael’s behalf and demanded that if they were not forgiven, then “erase me, if You will, from Your book” (Shemot 32:32). Although God accepted Moshe’s plea and forgave the people, nevertheless, Moshe demand of “mecheini na” – that his name should be “erased” – was partially fulfilled, through its omission from a context where it should have appeared. (Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the words, “Ve-ata tetzaveh,” instead of the conventional, “Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe lei-mor.”) This omission, Rav Heschel suggests, resulted in some leftover ink. The meaning of the Midrash’s remark, Rav Heschel explains, is that Moshe was deemed worthy of this special radiance because of his extraordinary self-sacrifice on behalf of Am Yisrael. Moshe refused to accept Benei Yisrael’s fall, despite being offered the opportunity to be the sole founder of God’s new treasured nation, and this remarkable selflessness and devotion to the people is what made him “shine” as he came down from the mountain to rejoin Benei Yisrael.
We might also suggest that the Midrash here points to Moshe’s mysterious “glow” as symbolic of the general aura and “radiance” that ought to characterize Torah life. The “ink” with which the Torah is written includes not only its technical requirements and prohibitions, but also an overall feeling and atmosphere that must be created and maintained. Not everything the Torah demands of us can be formulated in strict, legal terms. When God instructed Moshe to write His commands, He gave him a bit of extra ink – symbolizing the areas of Torah life that do not involve any specific obligations or restrictions, the overall “glow” of joy, dignity, sensitivity and serenity that must radiate from those who live lives of Torah commitment. Beyond strictly obeying the numerous specific commands, we must also strive to live with the “radiance” of Torah that shines upon and inspires the people around us.