Everyone is familiar with the famous sculpture of Italian artist Michelangelo depicting Moshe Rabeynu with two horns. The source of his inspiration was obviously this week’s portion. “And it came to pass, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moshe’s hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moshe knew not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him.” (Exodus 34:29) It seems straight forward that the description of horns coming out of his head was an inaccurate portrayal of what really happened to Moshe. This is obvious because the verse says outright that the skin of his face shone. The word in Hebrew used here for shone is “Karan“. Although, most of the times in the Torah the root of the word is used as a noun meaning horn, nevertheless, here it wouldn’t make sense to say that the skin of his face became horns. All horns of mammals come out of their heads not out of their faces. Michelangelo was misled by basing his sculpture on Saint Jerome’s fourth century Latin translation of the Bible. The simple understanding of the word usage here is that since light radiates as beams, which have an appearance of horns, the word “Keren” is used to describe the miraculous phenomenon. In this essay, I would like to try to clarify this wonder.
The famous Rabbi Isaac the son of Judah Abarbanel (1437 – 1508), in his commentary on the Torah, asks 12 questions regarding this topic. A look into some of them will help guide us in our attempt to shed light on this subject.
The first question he asks is related to the understanding of miracles. Since Hashem does not bring about miracles unless they are necessary – why then was is so vital that Moshe be granted this gift of radiance.
The second question he poses is how must one view this phenomenon? Should it be understood metaphorically as an achievement of a high spiritual level or perhaps, it is a physical reality, as it seems from a simple understanding of the verses?
He then asks about the timing of the happening. Why does this happen to Moshe only after the giving of the second tablets? There were three other great opportunities that one might expect this miracle to have already occurred: The first was the time of the giving of the Torah. This event included the giving over the Ten Commandments and Moshe’s first stay on the mountain for 40 days. The second opportunity was when the first tablets were given. The third one was when Moshe ascended the mountain to pray for Israel after the sin of the golden calf.
His fourth question is why does verse Exodus 34:29 stress the coming down of Moshe from the mountain twice? It surely seems superfluous to mention it a second time. “And it came to pass, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moshe’s hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moshe knew not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him.” (Exodus 34:29)
He then asks why doesn’t the Torah describe how this miracle happened- it just says that Moshe did not know that the skin of his face shone? In other words, it was a known fact that Moshe’s face glowed but he wasn’t aware of it.
His six question is why does the Torah have to stress the fact Moshe’s face radiated while speaking with G-D. Since the radiating of Moses’s light was a permanent situation why does the Torah have to stress the fact that it radiated while speaking with Him.
His seventh question is how is it possible that Moshe not know about his new situation? He should have surely felt a change in his appearance.
His eighth question is why were Aaron and Israel afraid to approach Moshe? “So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him”(Exodus 34:30)
His ninth question is Since Aaron and all of Israel all feared to approach Moshe it would make sense that Moshe would invite all of them back together. Why then are there two different stages of invitation in verse 31 first Aaron and the princes are invited to return and only afterwards is all of Israel invited. “And Moshe called them, and Aaron and all the princes of the congregation returned unto him, and Moshe talked with them” And afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. (Exodus 34:31-32)
The tenth question is if Hashem gave such a special present to Moshe why did Moshe have to keep it covered over with a veil. “When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face”
His eleventh question is what is the purpose of the veil if every time he spoke with Hashem and Israel he would remove it?
His twelfth and final question is why is Moshe’s name mentioned three times in verse 35 “And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him”
There are many ways of answering the above questions. The Abarbanel systematically goes through every one of his questions and answers them all. I suggest that those who have access to his commentary try and read his explanation. I prefer to present a different approach. I hope that it will answer most of the above questions.
Before we begin let us first look at the third verse in the Torah. “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light”. (Genesis 1:3) This verse reveals to us the entire reason behind creation. At creation, Hashem planted His light as a gift for humanity to connect to and relish in. By attaching to the Divine light, one will have achieved his true purpose of life – knowing G-D. So many people unfortunately are lost in their search for the wrong things like materialism, honor, and other earthy matters. They will never be satisfied in this type of journey. They will always feel a spiritual vacuum and emptiness. This is what the Torah is saying that in the beginning of creation, before Hashem planted His light, the earth was null and void. Without the light of Hashem the world is indeed empty and void. A human being that has not experienced the Divine feels empty and trapped in a kind of prison. Our soul is in constant longing for Hashem and does not want to be separated from G-D. The purpose of creation was to allow man, through free will, to discover Hashem. By true spiritual growth, one will eventually be blessed with the greatest possible gift – connecting to G-D Himself.
At creation, Adam and Chavah were told to follow some basic commandments that would have blessed them in basking in His light. After they sinned, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden and were made garments of skin. “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and He dressed them.” (Genesis 3:21) In Hebrew the word for skin is Ohr similar to the word of light which also is Ohr. The only difference is that in the word for skin it is spelled with an Ayin and the word for light is spelled with an Aleph. This means if they would not have sinned they would have been given the garments of light!
The course of history will eventually lead to returning to the Garden of Eden and thus rectifying the sin of the first man allowing humanity to connect with the Divine light. This process began with our forefathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and continued with the formation of the nation of Israel. This is the deep meaning behind the function of Israel being a light to the nations. The first leader of the nation of Israel is Moshe. It is Moshe that must lead the nation of Israel on the journey of being a true light to the nations.
It is known that Moshe was the greatest prophet that ever lived. The Torah describes how he was able to ascend the mountain and survive for 40 days and nights without eating or drinking. The reason being that he reached the highest possible level as a human being. Reaching prophecy requires tremendous human effort and perfection. The Rambam explains that prophecy can only be achieved by someone who is a great scholar and a master of remarkable character. He is someone who is in constant control of his earthy desires. Moshe was a living testimony of the highest level a human being can reach while still in this physical world. The formation of the nation of Israel and their exodus from Egypt through the leadership of Moshe was building up to the most amazing event in human history. The giving of the Torah at Sinai. Here it wasn’t only Moshe that reached prophecy but all of Israel attained some kind of level of prophecy at this sacred moment.
The importance of prophecy is that it allows one to experience the Creator drawing closer to Him and feeling His Presence. The function of the nation of Israel is to be a true light to the nations and show them the way to connect to Hashem. Israel can achieve this only by perfecting themselves in every way possible through the guidance of the Torah. After the giving of the Torah, Israel could have gone forward and brought about the redemption by being a true light to the nations. Unfortunately, one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history took place – the sin of the Golden Calf. Many ask the question how can Israel sin after experiencing the prophetic moment of receiving the Torah and all the other fabulous miracles that accompanied them in their exodus from Egypt. This demands an essay in itself to try to explain this difficult event. However, now, I want to focus on the reaction of our great prophet and leader Moshe which will answer most of the 12 questions of the Abarbanel I brought down above.
After the sin of the Golden Calf G-D says to Moshe – “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10) Moshe Rabeunu’s immediate response was to plead for the forgiveness and welfare of the nation of Israel. “And Moshe begged Hashem his God, and said, Hashem, why does your wrath grow hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?” Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, with bad intentions did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from your fierce wrath, and change from this evil against your people.” (Exodus 32:11-12)
After the breaking of the two tablets Moshe says: “Yet now, if you will forgive their sin…; and if not, blot me, I pray you, out of your book which you have written”(Exodus 32:32)
It is interesting that right after the sin the of the Golden Calf, Moshe is pleading to Hashem to see His face. It is sin that causes us to separate from our Creator. It creates barriers that block us from the light of Hashem. At this time, Moshe is requesting from Hashem not to place barriers that will separate the people of Israel from G-D. The barriers are hinted to within the verse itself that mentions the formation of the Golden Calf. “And he received them from their hand, and fashioned it with an engraving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) The word in Hebrew used for molten calf is “Egel Maseycah” In Hebrew the word “Maseycah” can mean molten metal or a kind of barrier. Here both meanings are suitable since the Golden Calf created a barrier between Israel and Hashem like all sins do. The Torah hinted to this by using the word “Maseychah“. The calf a simple animal represented the earthy desires of mankind that seek materialism like gold, and silver… These are the barriers that separated us from Hashem. By spending our lives running after materialistic goals we are continuing to sin with the golden calf.
Although G-D promises Moshe that He will make him into a great nation, it means nothing to him. Moshe’s only desire is to save the people of Israel. This reveals his amazing character. He has no self-interest; his only goal is the welfare of the house of Israel proving that Israel will live up to its role as being a light to the nations. He does not accept the possibility of the replacement of Israel with anther nation. Of course, it would not make sense to say that G-D changes his mind. The Divine plan is perfect. Therefore, G-D could not have really meant to destroy Israel and replace it with another nation. Apparently, Hashem wanted to make known to all the greatness of this Israeli leader. If Moshe would have accepted the Divine offer of wiping out Israel and making him a great nation it would have in reality showed an imperfection in his leadership and human achievement. Moshe perfected himself to the utmost possible level as a human being. As it says in numbers 12:3 “And Moshe was very modest more that any man on the face of the earth” His modesty was reflected in his love for Israel that knew no boundaries. He reached a level where he believed in his people and never gave up on them reaching their destiny.
When Moshe came down with the second tablets, he did not realize that his face was glowing with light. His modesty and selflessness were so great that he did not realize the gift he was bearing. He wasn’t interested in personal benefits. Moshe’s brilliant radiance of light was a living testimony to all that through great effort and endless devotion one can truly merit in the connection with the Divine light. As Moshe’s love for Israel became clarified to the highest degree possible, at the same time his spiritual accomplishment grew proportionally. The more love Moshe’s love for Israel was revealed the greater the spiritual level he achieved. This is why he merited in the gift of light after the sin of the Golden Calf. This also explains why Moshe removed the veil why talking with Israel. Since it was his endless love for them that caused him to receive this light in the first place, it is therefore appropriated that he remove the veil when speaking with them.
It is interesting that rectifying the sin of the first man by restoring light to the world is hinted in Moshe’s life from its onset. When he was born, the verse says: “And the woman conceived, and bore a son: and she saw him that he was a good child, and she hid him three months.” (Exodus 2:2) Rashi explains on this verse that when Moshe was born the entire house filled with light. Moshe at birth was beginning to bring light into the world that was darkened because of the sin of the first man. When Moshe was born he was beginning to rectify this sin of Adam by turning the skin garments into garments of light. That is why the same exact word is used in describing the radiance of Moshe’s skin.
The only other time that the word Keren is used as light shining is in Habakuk 3:4 “And there was a brightness like the light; they had rays from His hand, and there was His strength hidden.”
This verse is referring to the end of days when the hidden light of the Divine will shine forth and we will all merit in the final redemption. Perhaps this is the reason why the word for rays are the same as horns. And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be sounded, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those exiled in the land of Egypt shall come and they shall prostrate themselves before the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem. Isaiah (27:13)