Community Development

JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat Ki Tissa
Exodus 30:11–34:35
March 18, 2006    18 Adar 5766

This week's commentary is written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Director of Community Development, JTS

This past Sunday, at a town hall meeting in Maryland honoring laity from congregations from around the area, our Chancellor, Dr. Schorsch, and Rabbi David Rose of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac both opened by quoting a moving midrash on this week's parashah. The midrash relates that two stone tablets must have been nearly impossible for Moses to carry — what made them manageable was the words of Torah inscribed on them. However, when Moses saw the people in their revelry worshiping the golden calf, the letters ascended from the tablets and Moses was left with the burden of the stones. The tablets verily leapt from his hands as without the Torah, the burden was unwieldy.

The Torah is what makes our burdens manageable — an inspiring lesson. But we cannot all ascend a mountain and engage God. Even Moses himself, with his close relationship to the divine, has difficulty connecting. Later in this parashah, even he beseeches God for proof, for a personal revelation, for absolute truth (33:12).

Would that we all could have the experience of Moses; would that we all could have even a moment of absolute truth! I believe our parashah gives us the blueprint for a glimpse of that.

Toward the end of the parashah we read that Moses came down from Sinai with the second set of tablets in hand and approached the people. But something was different about Moses — there was something that frightened the people. He looked different. "U–Moshe lo yada ki keren or panav be–dibro ito [Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with him]" (34:29).

Commentators have looked at this phrase and wondered what had happened that Moses did not know that his face was shining. Had God done something to Moses? Had it existed from his first interactions? Was it a physiological reaction to the desert air?

The Talmud in Masechet Betiza uses our verse as a prooftext for an intriguing halakhah. On the question of whether someone has to inform another of a gift, Rabbi Hama be–Rebi Hanina states that it is permissible to give an anonymous gift to someone because, "Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant." The discussion continues, though with an opposing opinion, that if you feed another's child, you must find some way of informing the parent of that child — the Talmud suggests smearing rouge and oil on the child's head. Assumingly, when the child returns home the parent will question, "Who smeared you with rouge and oil?!" To which the child will respond, "Oh yes, Mr. Cohen, and he gave me some food too" (16a).

The parallel to Moses is striking and amusing. God has altered Moses' appearance so that Aaron and the elders will look at him and inquire as to what happened on Sinai.

From the preceding verse, we know that God gave Moses no food or drink: "And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water" (34:28). So what was the gift God gave Moses?

We have a clue from our verse: "U–Moshe lo yada ki keren or panav be–dibro ito [Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with him]" (34:29). The phrase be–dibro ito (he had spoken with him) is intriguing. Who is speaking with whom here?

Commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bahya look at this phrase and question if God is speaking to Moses or Moses is speaking to God. Its ambiguity stages an amorphous interrelationship that is echoed in two other verses with a similar construct.

The ambiguity paints us a picture of Moses and God in an intertwining dialogue that seems the epitome of Martin Buber's I–Thou relationship. A defining characteristic of this connection is that one can only experience an I–Thou relationship if one is unaware of the fact. Once you become cognizant of an I–Thou relationship, it is over. It is a relationship that can only occur when you are unaware of it.

This was God's gift to Moses. Earlier, Moses had begged God for intimacy. His request was denied because "man may not see Me and live" (33:20). It would seem from God's response that Moses was permitted simply an experience of God, not intimacy.

As he descends from Sinai, however, Moses was given a gift, the intimate experience that he could only have without realizing it: a true I–Thou experience. The relationship transpired in their conversation — be–dibro ito — in the communication that was God transmitting Torah to Moses and his writing of the second set of tablets.

Moses did have, as we all can, a moment of intimacy with God. That moment for Moses was when he became enfolded in a dialogue with God, unable to discern who was speaking with whom. The radiance that shone from his face was that of the letters he transmitted to the second set of tablets. This second time, they not only made the stone manageable, but his countenance shine.

Shabbat shalom,

Marc Wolf

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.