Transformative Power

Moses was changed internally and externally by his experience on Mt. Sinai.

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The description interfaces with two earlier passages. As the Israelites grow uneasy over the delay in Moses' return from Mount Sinai the first time, they suspect that he is but an ordinary, fallible mortal (33:1). Aaron, on the other hand, who serves as the Tabernacles' chief priest, is distinguished by his ornate vestments. The radiance on Moses' face counters both perceptions. Transformed by his experience, Moses stands out among mortals, a leader without need of special garments. The visible manifestation of his inner state sets him apart from the ordinary or conventional.

The midrash imagines the change to have occurred in one of two ways. One view suggests that God actually touched Moses as he cowered in the crevice of the rock. It was literally God's hand that shielded Moses as God passed by to give him a glimpse of the divine presence (33:22). The other conjectures that as God instructed Moses atop Mount Sinai, Moses absorbed some of the divine sparks that emanated from God's mouth (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa, no. 37). Either way, whether by physical or spiritual means, the aftermath of the golden calf effected a lasting transformation in the appearance of Moses.

Reflection of Reality

To be sure, the external is only a reflection of a reality that is internal. Is that not the mark of a great portrait painter like Rembrandt that he makes the face reveal the soul of his subject? Grace should be visible. Thus when we find ourselves in the presence of a truly great scholar of Torah we thank God in a berakhah [blessing] for having endowed someone who fears God with divine wisdom. The labor of a lifetime exudes an aura of equanimity.

On a smaller scale, what happened to Moses is replicated inour own lives each week with the observance of Shabbat, a topic taken up twice in our parashah (31:12-16; 34:21). As the light radiating from Moses' face attested to his relationship to God, so integrating Shabbat into the rhythm of our lives infuses an extrasensory dimension of existence into our being. Both are a sign signifying the convergence of the holy and profane, of that which is eternal and that which is passing.

Janus-like the Sabbath reminds us of the cataclysms by which God created the cosmos, even as it provides us a tad of a foretaste of the peacefulness that awaits us in the world-to-come. By expressing our reverence in rest, we gain a measure of renewal. The combination of prayer and study, of food, family and friendship imbues us with an expansion of spirit, a veritable extra soul that leaves us only as the Sabbath fades away.

But we enter the work week illuminated and restored with a touch of eternity to carry us through the ordeal of the mundane. At best, the spiritual respite has transfigured our demeanor, like Kafka's doll.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.