Saturday, July 02, 2022

One of Tanach’s most astonishing anthropomorphisms describes the way that Moshe communicates with God: “And God spoke to Moshe face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Shemot 33:11). This singular relationship is so seminal to Moshe’s life that it appears again at the end of the Torah in its encapsulation of Moshe’s uniqueness (Devarim 34:10).

An electrifying description to be sure, but not one that lasts long. The thrill of this direct communication quickly fades when—just nine verses later—God restrains Moshe sharply, informing him that he cannot actually see the face of God, “for no person can see Me and live” (Shemot 33:20). The contradictions inherent in this mysterious passage cannot, perhaps, be fully reconciled; they seem designed to illustrate the tension inherent in any bid to attain closeness to God.

The effects of Moshe’s “face-to-face” relationship with God emerge in the following chapter, which features Moshe descending Har Sinai with a radiant face (Shemot 34:29). After 40 days of “face-to-face” communication with God, Moshe’s face reflects the divine light.

Israel responds to Moshe’s ethereal glow with fear. Nevertheless, Moshe does not yield to their fright; instead of veiling himself, he draws them closer for further instructions. Moshe only veils himself after he finishes instructing the people.

Moshe’s role as conveyor of God’s words to the people is not a one-time occurrence. The passage tells us that Moshe always enters God’s presence unveiled. Moshe also remains barefaced when he conveys God’s commands to Israel, allowing the nation of Israel—perhaps even coercing them—to view his shining face, only replacing the veil once he has finished transmitting God’s instructions.

The nation may shrink from Moshe’s numinous glow. But Moshe is a supreme educator. He wishes to share more than just knowledge; Moshe aims to share some of his experiences with the nation of Israel. Having savored the radiance—the light and the warmth—of being in the Divine presence, Moshe endeavors to transmit this Divine light to the nation, to allow them to sample a taste of his experience of speaking to God face-to-face.

Moshe’s pedagogical skills are best seen in his influence upon Joshua, his devoted attendant. When Moshe concludes his face-to-face conversation with God, he returns to the camp, where he encounters Joshua, who has remained steadfast in the tent (Shemot 33:11). Joshua emerges as the most direct beneficiary of Moshe’s glow. Thus, the Gemara suggests that Moshe’s face shines like the sun, while Joshua’s is like the moon (Bava Batra 75a), which reflects the sun’s light.

Closeness to God is both a great privilege and a grave responsibility. Having received God’s light, Moshe feels obligated to convey this experience to others—to Joshua, to Israel—in the hope that they will also begin to radiate this light outward.

The nation of Israel is not merely the beneficiary of Moshe’s overflow of God’s light. Remarkably, the entire nation experiences its own face-to-face interaction with God at Sinai (Devarim 5:4). Later passages indicate that Israel bears traces of God’s light; thus, they are tasked with the solemn duty of acting as “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). This responsibility is especially important once Israel is situated in its land. There, the nation must shine God’s light outward, teaching the nations of God’s instructions, and sharing the joy of living amidst God’s light and warmth (Isaiah 60:1-3): “Rise up and shine, for your light has come and the glory of God shines upon you. For darkness covers the earth…but nations shall walk in your light!”

Dr. Yael Ziegler is a lecturer in Bible at Herzog Academic College and at Matan Jerusalem. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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