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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Ki Tissa: Horns of Light

This week's Torah reading contains a great deal of drama. Moses's communion with God, atop Mount Sinai, is cut short by the incident of the Golden Calf. Having already sought to quell God's anger, he descends the mountain, smashes the tablets of stone, destroys the golden calf, scattering its dust into water, and has the Israelites drink it. He then interrogates Aaron, and presides over the punishment of 3,000 people. And then Moses gets back to work, seeking to appease the wrath of the Lord.

In the aftermath of that drama, our reading includes a truly enigmatic passage in which Moses asks God for some sort of unprecedented personal revelation. "Please," he requests, "Let me see your glory" (Exodus 33:18). God then seems to refuse, saying that nobody can see God's face and live (Exodus 33:20) - even though a few verses earlier, we had been told that Moses and God would speak "face to face" (Exodus 33:11). And then, despite the refusal, God does grant him an intimate experience like no other had between man and God, even if it fell short of seeing God's face. God says to Moses (Exodus 33:21-23):

“See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

This chapter has given rise to multiple and radically divergent readings whether in the Midrash, among the medieval commentators and philosophers, or in the kabbalistic tradition. But I want to focus this week on a Midrash that addresses, not the revelation that Moses experienced in the cleft of that rock, but on the transformation that Moses underwent, after that experience, as he returned to the people with the second tablet of stones:

Moses according to Michelangelo
And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the covenant, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them... And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with Him. (Exodus 34:29-25)

So much could be said about this passage too:

  • The radiance of Moses's skin, in Hebrew, קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו, was mistranslated into Latin as Moses having grown horns (leading to Michelangelo's rather bizarre rendering of Moses).

  • His veil resonates with the Islamic mystical tradition of the veil that seems to separate God from the world.

  • The festival of Purim, which always falls out near to this week's reading, is one about God's hidden hand working through history, and it is the festival in which we disguise ourselves, in order to mirror the way in which the miracles of God are also, sometimes, disguised as the unfolding of nature. Accordingly, last week's Torah reading is the only reading from the birth of Moses until the end of the book of Numbers in which the name of Moses doesn't appear. This can be likened to the Book of Ester: the only book of the Bible that doesn't mention God. And this week we have Moses hiding behind a veil.

But the focus of this series, from the very outset, has been the Midrash, and so it remains. In that spirit, let me share with you a Midrash about the radiance of Moses' face. The Midrash asks: "Why did Moses merit the beams of glory?" And it provides a number of suggestions:

Our sages of blessed memory said: Because of the incident at the rock, as it is said: And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by (Exod. 33:22). The Holy One placed His Hand upon him, and because of that he merited the beams of glory. For so it says: emanating rays on every side— And therein His glory is enveloped (Hab. 3:4).

On this view, it's as if God's hand, shielding him from seeing God's face, left Moses radiant. An overly literal translation of the verse they bring from Habakuk would read as follows: rays emanate from his hand, where his power is hidden. There is, apparently, some deep association between being hidden by the hand of God and radiating light. The Midrash records another suggestion:

There are others who say that at the time the Holy One, blessed be He, taught [Moses] the Torah, sparks emanated from the countenance of the Divine presence, and he received the beams of glory from them.

On this reading, it's as if God's own radiance rubbed off on Moses in the process of their talking together; in the process of Moses learning from God. The Midrash continues:

R. Shmuel bar Nahman said: The tablets were six handbreadths long and three handbreadths thick, and Moses held them by two of the handbreadths, and the Holy One, blessed be He, held them by two, and Moses obtained the beams of glory from the two handbreadths in the middle.

More obscure than the previous two suggestions, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman suggests that the rays of light that emanated from Moses emerged from the space between Moses's hand, which grasped the bottom of the tablets of stone, and the hands of God, which held the top of the tablets of stone. The Midrash makes one final suggestion in the name of (presumably, another) Rabbi Shmuel (although, the same opinion appears in Midrash Rabba in the name of Reish Lakish):

R. Shmuel said: After Moses wrote the Torah, a little ink was left in the pen, and when he passed it before his head, the beams of glory were formed upon him, as it is said: And Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams.

This last opinion is, perhaps, a little better known than the others. It has lead people to speculate why there was left-over ink. Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar relates this Midrash to the humility of Moses. When Moses was commanded, by God, to write the words, in the book of Numbers, which testify to the fact that Moses was supremely humble (Numbers 12:3), Moses wrote the Hebrew word for humility in a shorter form. Why? Because he was humble. Instead of writing "עניו", he wrote "ענו". According to Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar, that's why there was ink left over - from the missing letter י. This ink found its way onto the face of Moses and crowned him with rays of glory.

Similarly, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (more widely known as the Ba'al HaTurim) argued that Moses made a certain letter smaller than it was supposed to be (namely: the first letter א in the book of Leviticus). For reasons that needn't detain us here, Moses shrunk that letter for reasons of humility. And so, there was plenty of ink to spare!

I am moved by the notion that the humility of Moses was the foundation of his rays of glory. I'm glad that the Midrash has been taken in that direction. But, if we pay attention to the leftover ink, in the context of the Midrash as a whole, a different reading emerges; even though it also has something to do with humility.

The Midrash presents us with four distinct suggestions, as to the source of the radiance of Moses' skin:

  1. It was left by the hand of God that covered Moses on the cleft of rock

  2. It was left by the sparks of light that showered upon Moses as he learnt Torah from God

  3. It emerged in the space between the hands of Moses, and the hands of God, that carried the tablets of stone down Mount Sinai

  4. It was the result of the left-over ink that found its way onto the skin of Moses

Confronted by a list of answers, collected by a single Midrash in answer to a single question, it's incumbent upon a reader to search for the similarities and the differences. It seems to me that there's a very clear common thread that runs through all four suggestions. The glory of Moses emerges not through his proximity to God, but from the gap between them. The hand that leaves a luminescent mark was placed upon Moses to hide the face of God from him. More vividly, perhaps, the space between the hands of Moses and the hands of God also speaks to this theme. But so too the sparks and the ink.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Not every truth can be put into words. This is a controversial thesis. Some philosophers argue that all knowledge is, at root, propositional. What that means is that everything that can be known can be expressed within the grammatical constraints of a language. But many philosophers have disagreed. Bertrand Russell spoke of a knowledge by acquaintance, which is prior to language. Ludwig Wittgenstein, on traditional readings of his work, suggests that there are aspects of reality that language fails to represent. Frank Jackson suggests that words can never do justice to phenomenal experience. And, Eleonore Stump has argued that there are forms of inter-personal knowledge that cannot be reduced to the third-personal language of the sciences.

When God taught the Torah to Moses he showered him in words and ideas. But he showered him in all sorts of experiences that words cannot convey; perhaps these were the sparks of light. Once all of the words had been written down, there was ink left over, because not everything that Moses learnt could be written down.

The gap between Moses and God is the common thread that links the four suggestions together. But there are differences too. Suggestions 1 and 3 (about the hand of God and the space on the tablets) address a gap between the face of God, or God as he really is, and what Moses managed to cling to or understand. Suggestions 2 and 4 (about the sparks of light and the left-over ink) address a gap between what we do know about God and what we can say. These are different sorts of gaps. And they correspond to different sorts of humility.

To be aware of the gap between what we've experienced and what we can say, is an essential feature of intellectual humility. Likewise: to be aware of the gap between God as we experience Him and God as He really is, is an essential feature of religious humility.

We can also detect differences between suggestions 1 and 3. Is the gap between God and us somehow imposed upon us, or exacerbated by God, who places his hand on us, perhaps to protect us? Or, is the gap between God and us simply a natural consequence of the metaphysical distance? Suggestions 2 and 4 differ too. Can the unsayable aspects of reality somehow be communicated, if not by words then by some other means, like a shower of sparks? Or, must the things that can't be said forever remain trapped as leftover ink in a quill that can write no more?

Some faces shine. What lights them is humility. A face shines when a person is sensitive to the truths that language fails to express. A face shines when a person is sensitive to the fact that however much they've managed to understand, the reality is far more wondrous still.

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