Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
The church of San Pietro in Rome is home to the famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo. The imposing figure of the father of all prophets, as the artists envisioned him, sits crowned by two horns like the horns of an animal. The renaissance artist had translated the text of our parasha discussing the rays of light shining from Moshe’s (Moses‘) face to mean horns growing from his forehead.
What an embarrassing mistake.
For the sake of historical accuracy, keep in mind that the yoke of blame can not be entirely placed on Michelangelo‘s shoulders. He had just read the Pentateuch as translated in to Latin by Jerome in the Vulgate and, well, the sculpture turned out the way it turned out. Sorry, Michelangelo!
But anyone reading the verses describing the light shining from Moshe’s face in the original Hebrew can sense a certain celebratory tone. The commentaries take note of the event in a festive light, providing lengthy annotations about the beauty and majesty depicted there. If the rays of light shining from Moshe’s face had not been rays of light at all, but animal horns, what reason would there be for celebration? Why would the Torah go to great lengths to describe a phenomenon more appropriate to conceal for shame?
Here, take a look at the verses for yourself: “When Moshe descended from Mount Sinai -- with the two Tablets of Testimony in the hand of Moshe as he descended from the mountain -- Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant when He had spoken to him. Aaron and all the Children of Israel saw Moshe and behold! The skin of his face had become radiant; and they feared to approach him. Moshe called to them, and they returned to him…he would command them regarding everything that Hashem had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. Moshe finished…and placed a mask on his face.” (Exodus 34:29-33)
What was this “radiance” all about? Moshe’s spiritual connectedness had become so powerful that the physical contours of his face shone with it. At Sinai mortal man, born of a woman, had met with the omnipotent, omniscient Eternal. Moshe, the man who had stood for us all, was changed forever.
“The wisdom of a man lights up his face” (Proverbs): This light is still reflected in the faces of those most refined and spiritually connected among us today. Whoever has been privileged to meet one of the great Torah leaders of our generation knows that people like this are few and far between. Devoting their entire lives to develop the self-control needed to obtain absolute discipline over all of their behaviors and thoughts, these men and women are the pinnacle of spiritual achievement. The human in them has won the complete trust and obedience of everything animal in their body and personality. The result? They shine. Anyone who has stood in the presence of such people has tasted something of the majesty projected by Moshe. The infinite beauty of the human soul, with it’s source in the infinitude of the Eternal, shines through every aspect of their behavior and personality.
Moshe spent forty days on Mount Sinai receiving the entire Torah, including every insight scholars would reveal for all generations to come and every secret in the Torah’s depths. As Moshe clung to the Torah with all of his being, the power of what he was encountering purified his character beyond measure and came to redefine his being. Overflowing the limitations of his physical body, the spiritual in Moshe shone through his features with a vivid, potent light. As Moshe descended from the mountain, these “rays of glory” or this “brilliance of the intellect” was projected to the people of Israel in full force.
This was also the reason Moshe masked his face. A certain barrier had to be erected between the G-dly and the mortal in his personality in order to allow him to come close to the Jewish People and to communicate with them. The hours when Moshe “placed a mask on his face” were the times when he temporarily disengaged from his absolute cleaving to G-d and His Torah in order to create a platform for relationship between him and the far more limited nation he was leading. For the rest of his life, whenever Moshe involved himself in physical errands for his own needs or for others, the mask had to be placed on his face. When Moshe taught us Torah or merited a prophetic encounter with the Almighty, the mask came back off.
Quite a departure from horns on the forehead, huh? Sorry, Michelangelo. Jews don’t have horns but we have something else: an inner light. The more we express our infinite G-dly soul, the more we shine.