Parashat Ki Tissa

February 15, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, News, Shmot

By Rabbi Enid Lader

Karan ‘Or Panav – His Face Was Radiant

At the end of our Torah portion, Moses comes down from his encounter with God at Sinai with the second set of tablets. His face is described as “radiant” – so much so, that it is difficult for others to look upon him, and he needs to cover his face with a veil. This is indeed quite something, since the text mentions this three times: Exodus 34:29, 30, 35. However, this is not the first time Moses and God are in “conversation,” yet this is the first time Moses’ countenance is so affected. Why was this time different from all other times?

Moses’ first encounter with God was the scene of the burning bush on Mt. Horeb (Exodus, ch. 3). Moses saw that a bush was burning, yet not consumed, and went toward it for a closer look. We are familiar with this scene: God calls out from the bush to Moses, Moses responds, and is then told to take off his shoes, as he is standing on holy ground. God introduces God’s self to Moses, and Moses – afraid to look – hides his face: vayaster Moshe panav (Ex. 3:6). God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Children of Israel go…. This is quite an extended conversation between God and Moses and it would seem difficult for Moses to carry on the whole conversation with his face hidden. Yet, at the end of the scene, there is no mention of Moses’ face radiating.

After the exodus from Egypt, and after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and after the covenant ceremony with Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders, God then tells Moses to ascend the mountain and receive the two stone tablets upon which God will inscribe with the teachings and commandments to instruct the people (Ex. 24:12). Moses ascended the mountain, and “… the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 24:17). Moses enters the realm of God through a thick cloud and is gone for forty days and nights… to appear again as he comes down carrying the first set of stone tablets… to find his people celebrating around the image of a golden calf. No mention of his face radiating.

And now we come to the end of our Torah portion, after Moses has gone up the mountain a second time. Moses descends the mountain and this time his face is radiant. We read: “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights, bread he did not eat and water he did not drink; and he wrote on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments… As he came down from the mountain… he was not aware that his face was radiant, since he had spoken with [God]” (Ex. 34:28-29). What was the difference?

When Moses first encountered God at Horeb, God and Moses spoke. Moses was told what to do and what God would be doing. No radiance.

When Moses brought down the first set of tablets from Sinai, God and Moses had spoken with each other… but still no radiance.

In this third case, God and Moses had come to the point in their relationship where they spoke with each other panim el panim – face to face” (Ex. 33:11). Moses had also asked to see God’s Presence. In response, God answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name YHVH, and the grace… and the compassion… But… you cannot see my face, for man may not see Me and live…” (Ex. 33:19) How do we reconcile these two verses? Speaking “face to face” and truly being in another’s presence, but not seeing their face? In I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote: “When I confront [another] as my Thou… [the other] is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he, but everything else lives in his light” (p. 59).

As Moses comes down the mountain with the second set of tablets, his face radiated – not from fire – but with the passion and light that comes when one is in a true relationship with another.

On this Shabbat, may we bask in the light of a true relationship. May we talk with one another panim el panim, truly “face to face.”May we feel the presence of God’s grace and compassion. And as a result, may our faces radiate true Shalom – peace.


Rabbi Enid C. Lader received her semikhah from AJR in May, 2011. She serves as rabbi for Knesseth Israel Temple in Wooster, Ohio.