Skip to main content

Ki Tisa | The Face of Moses

Text file




            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?




"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)[1]


            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.




"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." (Bekhor Shor)


            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."[2]  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 their misdemeanors.


            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 time.


            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.




            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[3] 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)."[4]  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."




            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.




            A third explanation sees the divine glow as a product not of God but of Torah:


"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.




            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." (18:17-22)


            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.[5]  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 godly terms.


            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.


Shabbat shalom


[1] I have deliberately quoted the entire passage with its ambiguities and repetitions.  The differences of opinion between commentators rest on alternative readings of these complex verses.  We would do well to share the inherent confusion within the text.

[2] Rashbam, Commentary to Exodus 25:16.

[3] Ha'emek Davar.

[4] Rabbeinu Bachya 34:33.

[5] See Rashi on Exodus 19:19.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!