Dvar Torah for Shabbat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 - 34:35) given at Temple Israel on 2/14/14
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa, in Exodus 34: 29-35 to be exact, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets following the sin of the golden calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets. Here’s the passage to which I’m referring:
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with God. 30 Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses' face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the Eternal had imparted to him on Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
34 Whenever Moses went in before the Eternal to converse, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 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 God.
Later Jewish tradition teaches that the date on which Moses returned with the second set of tablets was the 10th of Tishri, which is Yom Kippur/ The Day of Atonement.
The Torah reports that when Moses returned, קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו / “karan or panav” / “the skin of his face was beaming” from having been in such close communion with God. The Hebrew word “karan/ קרן” (which the Jewish Publication Society translates as “radiant” and that I just translated as “beaming,” is a verb derived from the noun “keren” (same Hebrew letters but pronounced with different vowels) meaning “horn”. Rashi comments that the word “keren” is used here: שהאור מבהיק ובולט כמין קרן / “sheha’or mavhik uvolet kemin keren” (“because the light shines out and projects like a sort of horn”).
Of course, this is the root of some old anti-Semitic misunderstandings that claimed that Jews had horns. But In a more sympathetic, contemporary context we might describe Moses here as having a sort of “aura.”
However we understand the phrase “karan or panav,” a question remains for us: Moses had spoken with God many times before without getting these beams, or horns or rays of light. So what’s different about this latest encounter with God compared to his previous encounters with God?
What’s different is that it’s on this occasion that Moses learns of the possibility of teshuvah/repentance/turning. The very fact that Moses could come back with a replacement set of tablets was a sign that God had decided to give the people a second chance.
And so we find, earlier in our parasha, that when Moses asks God to show him God’s ways, God’s response is all about teshuva ( Indeed, although the most common translation of “teshuvah” is “repentance,” the word can also, literally, be translated as “response”).
We are well familiar with that response, the Shelosh Esrey Midot/ “The Thirteen Divine Attributes.” These words from our Torah portion, in somewhat abbreviated fashion, are part of our Yom Kippur liturgy:
יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת.
Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה
keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and acquitting the penitent.
It’s in this new, deeper experience of God, this new perception of God’s aspect of granting pardon and forgiveness, that Moses acquires that aura.
The gift of the second set of tablets teaches Moses, and teaches us, that it’s never too late to start over, to refocus, to return to our better selves.
And just as God gives us the possibility of being forgiven, so also ought we to be forgiving to others who may have messed up in one way or another in their relationships with us.
For, ultimately, healthy relationship is not about being perfect and never making a mistake. Rather it’s about having faith and trust in the long run. Indeed, in the Hebrew language, the verb “l’ha’amin” (להאמין) from the root letters aleph-mem-nun/א.מ.נ. ) (and the related noun “emunah” אמוניה include the English concepts of faith, belief and trust – all in the same word.
So, to use another word derived from the same root letters (aleph-mem-nun): Whenever we say Ameyn (or “Amen” in English) --- we’re not just saying that we believe the message of a particular prayer to be factually true. More importantly -- we’re saying that we have faith and trust in the ongoing relationship between ourselves and God.
And yet, the Torah also reports that the people at first recoil in fear at Moshe’s beaming countenance. So Moses puts on a veil to help the people to be more comfortable in his presence.
How often do we act in similar fashion? When we have had life-changing experiences --- be they joyful or sorrowful -- sometimes we know that those close to us are not always capable of really hearing what we have to say.
What we want to say to them is too sublime, too powerful to put out to them totally unfiltered, at least not right away. And so, most times, most days, most places, we veil our innermost truths, and comport ourselves with the polite social conventions of small talk and pleasantries.
This is not a bad thing per se. We would simply burn out if every interpersonal interaction was as intense as the Revelation at Sinai.
But we must not veil ourselves all the time. As the Torah teaches, Moses takes off the veil when he speaks with God and when he teaches God’s mitzvot to his people.
To me, the analogous message for us is this: Despite whatever polite, social conventions we may feel we need to adopt in whatever social settings, we still need to be able to be out, to be open, and to be fully who we are when it matters most --- when we seek intimate connection with others, and when we seek to live out our deepest values.
© Rabbi David Steinberg (5774/2014)