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Coronavirus or the Glow on Moshe’s Face?

The last 7 verses of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisah, describe a change in the appearance of Moshe Rabbenu. “Aaron and all of the Children of Israel saw Moshe, and behold the skin of his face had become radiant; and they feared to approach him.” The Torah continues and says Moshe first called Aaron, then the leaders, and finally anyone from the nation to join him in his tent for learning. “When Moshe finished speaking with them, he placed a mask on his face. When Moshe would come before Hashem to speak with Him, he would remove the mask until he departed; then he would leave and tell the Children of Israel whatever he had been commanded. When the Children of Israel saw Moshe’s face, that it became radiant, Moshe put the mask back on his face, until he came to speak with Him.” (Shemot 34:29=35) What does these concluding verses our Torah portion come to teach? As a prophet, was Moshe modeling proper behavior for future generations in the case of a pandemic?

Holding aside for a moment the issue of Moshe’s appearance and the covering of his face, one thing we learn from this account was Moshe’s chief purpose and primary function in the society. It was to be its teacher or rebbe. Moshe had a system of instruction as well. First to learn with him every day was Aaron. He had a private one on one session with Moshe. Next to hear the class were the leaders, first Aaron’s two sons, then the 70 elders. Finally, anyone (man, woman, or child) from the rest of the nation could attend the class given directly by Moshe. Moshe’s title, the way he was known by the people in the nation, was not as king, prince or excellency. It was “rabbenu,” our teacher.

Moshe’s respect and power in the nation resided in his knowledge. However, his relationship to the people was essentially as their teacher. In this main role and function of his life, Moshe was accessible to all. These daily classes were not indoctrination sessions. They were classes devoted to an honest analysis. The best explanation prevailed. Other parshiot of the Torah record situations and events where Moshe’s understanding was wrong, as in his dispute with Aaron, or deficient in the inheritance case of the daughters of Tzelophchod. As recorded, he was the first to acknowledge that fact. 

The Torah here is not simply describing the radiant glow given off when a prestigious award or medal is bestowed upon the recipient or winner. Nor is it describing the gleam or smile of satisfaction that envelopes a person who now understands something that was previously elusive. This change was something Moshe himself did not even realize, at first, had happened to him. We read, “…Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant when He had spoken to him.” (Shemot 34:29) Surely every person knows when he or she is smiling and beaming with delight. We can then deduce that the change that occurred in Moshe’s appearance didn’t occur by him nor was it for him. If so, then how did it happen and what was it for?

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Moshe ben Chaim, shared the following explanation with me. The account of the change in Moshe’s appearance is to endorse a יסוד “yesod,” a fundamental principle of Judaism. People wonder to themselves or ask did Moshe create the Written and Oral Torahs or did they emanate directly from God?

The answer was, literally, on Moshe’s face. This radiance was of a miraculous nature. There was no external or internal source. It remained with Moshe for the rest of his life. It was revealed and visible to the people only while they learned with Moshe. Its purpose was to demonstrate God’s continual endorsement of all Moshe’s words to the people both the Oral Law, and all that Moshe wrote later in scrolls, the Written Law, the Five Books of the Torah. Moshe’s words and writings were the authentic communication from God.

If this was true, how could Moshe ever be wrong? Moshe received all the facts of the system of Judaism. He alone was authorized to transmit the “word of God” to the nation in two forms, oral and written. However, the analysis of the facts, the concepts behind the facts were open to discovery by all. 99.9% of the time Moshe had the correct understanding or concept underlying the facts. But not always. 

That Moshe’s face remained unveiled, displaying the “glow,” while teaching, communicating God’s word and commands to the people, proved that the “radiance” was solely to endorse the fact that all of Moshe’s words were the authentic words of God. This idea is additionally hinted to when we consider that the light on his face was a reflection. Again, he did not even realize at first that his face was illuminated. So too, Moshe’s teachings were reflecting God’s exact words. God was the source. 

Maimonides wrote in the 8th of his 13 Principles of Faith, “I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our possession is the same one that was given to Moshe Rabbenu, peace be upon him.” In the merit of our acceptance of this truth, May Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan