What is the significance of the dazzling radiance of Moses’ face and why did it not attain this shining glow until he received the Second Tablets on Yom Kippur? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, why did Moses break the first tablets?
Yes, he was bitterly disappointed, perhaps even angry, at the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf only 40 days after God’s first revelation on Shavuot; however, these tablets were “the work of God and they were the writing of God.” How could the holiest human being take the holiest object on earth and smash it to smithereens? Was he not adding to Israel’s sin, pouring salt on the wounds of the Almighty (as it were)?
My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, taught that Moses emerges from our portion of Ki Tisa not only as the greatest prophet of the generations, but also as the exalted rebbe of klal yisrael, all of Israel, as Moshe Rabbeinu — Moses the teacher and master of all the generations. This unique transformation of his personality took place on Yom Kippur; it is the sobriquet of rebbe, which occasions the rays of splendor that shone forth from his countenance.
The Midrash on the first verse of the Book of Leviticus, “And [God] called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting,” provokes a remarkable insight.
The biblical word for “called out” in this text is vayiker, a word that suggests a mere chance encounter rather than an actual summoning or calling out of the Divine; indeed, our Masoretic text places a small letter alef at the end of the word. The Midrash explains that it was Moses’ modesty that insisted upon an almost accidental meeting (veyikra) rather than a direct summons.
However, when God completed the writing down of the Five Books, there was a small amount of ink left over from that small alef; the Almighty lovingly placed the surplus of sacred ink on Moses’ forehead, which accounts for the glorious splendor that emanated from his face.
Allow me to add to this Midrash on the basis of the teaching of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The essence of the second tablets included the Oral Law, the human input of the great Torah sages throughout the generations that had been absent from the first tablets.
Hence, Chapter 34 of our portion opens with God’s command to Moses, “Hew for yourself two stone tablets” — you, Moses, and not Me, God; the first tablets were hewn by God and the commandments were engraved by God, whereas the second tablets were hewn by the human being Moses and the commands were engraved by him. The chapter concludes: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write for yourself these words for on the basis of these words [the Oral Law, the hermeneutic principles and the interpretations of the rabbis of each generation] have I established an [eternal] covenant with Israel.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik maintains that during the 40 days from the beginning of the month of Elul to Yom Kippur, Moses relearned the 613 commandments with the many possibilities of the Oral Law; Moses’ active intellect became the “receiver” for the active intellect of the Divine, having received all of the manifold potential possibilities of the future developments of Torah throughout the generations. This is the meaning of the Talmudic adage that “Every authentic scholar (talmid vatic) who presents a novel teaching is merely recycling Torah from Sinai.”
In this manner, Moses’ personality became totally identified and intertwined with Torah, a sacred combination of the Divine words and the interpretations of Moses. Moses became a living Torah scroll, a “ministering vessel” that can never lose its sanctity.
The Beit Halevi (Rav Yosef Dov Baer Halevi Soloveitchik, the great-grandfather of my teacher) maintains that the special radiance that emanated from Moses’ countenance originated from the concentrated sanctity of Moses’ identity with the many aspects of the Oral Torah that his own generation was not yet ready to hear, but that Moses kept within himself, for later generations. Whenever the inner world of the individual is more than it appears to be on the surface, that inner radiance becomes increasingly pronounced and externally manifest. Moses’ radiant glow was Oral Torah dependent, not at all germane to the first tablets, which contained only the Written Law.
Why did Moses break the first tablets? Moses understood that there was a desperate need for a second set of tablets, born of God’s consummate love and unconditional forgiveness, with an Oral Law that would empower the nation to be God’s partners in the developing Torah. But God had threatened to destroy the nation. Moses breaks the first tablets as a message to God: Just as the tablets are considered to be “ministering vessels” that never lose their sanctity even if broken, so are the Jewish People, knesset yisrael, teachers and students of Torah, “ministering vessels,” who will never lose their sanctity, even if God attempts to break them! The Jewish nation, repositories of the oral teachings, are the heirs to the eternal sanctity of Moses their rebbe.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.