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The Glow On Moshe’s Face

The last 7 verses of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, describes 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 the Torah mean to convey to us?

Holding aside for a moment the idea Moshe’s appearance and the covering of his face, one thing we learn from this account was Moshe’s chief purpose and function in the society, to be its teacher or rebbe. Moshe had a system of instruction as well. First to learn every day was Aaron. He had a private one on one session with Moshe. Next to hear the class were the leaders. Then, 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.

His relationship to the people was essentially through the power of his knowledge and teaching.  For this main function of his life, Moshe was accessible to all. But these daily classes were not indoctrination sessions. They were classes of honest analysis in which the best explanation prevailed. Other parshiot of the Torah record situations and events where Moshe’s understanding was wrong or deficient. 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 metal is bestowed upon the recipient or winner. Nor is it describing the gleam or smile that envelopes people when they achieve success in understanding something that previously eluded them.  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?

The account of the change in Moshe’s appearance is to endorse a “yesod,” a fundamental principle of Judaism.  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 and 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, the Oral Law, and all that Moshe wrote later in scrolls, the Written Law or Torah. Moshe’s words and writings were the authentic communication from God.

If this is 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. But not always.

The  very fact that Moshe’s face was to stay unveiled, displaying the “glow” on his face while communicating God’s word and commands to the people, proves that the “light” or “glow” was for the express purpose of endorsing all of Moshe’s words as the authentic words of God. A colleague pointed out that this idea is additionally hinted to by the fact that the light on his face was a reflection. Its source was not Moshe. Again, he did not even realize at first that his face was illuminated. So too, Moshe’s teachings were reflecting God’s exact words not that he was the originator of the words.

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