“So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant [keren], since he had spoken to him [God]….And when Moses had finished speaking with them [the Israelites], he placed a veil over his face.”
[Exodus 34: 29, 33- Translation of Jewish Publication Society, 1991]
Imbued with Divine light, Moses covers his face. In contrast, Michelangelo’s sculpture in Rome shows Moses bearing horns. In Hebrew the word keren, found in verse 29, can be translated as horns or rays of light. The Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) on which Michelangelo relied, chose horns. The rabbinic commentaries consistently interpreted the word as aura or rays of light, relying on light as an attribute of God.
The great Biblical commentator and political statesman, Isaac Abravanel (Spain-Portugal-Italy, 1437-1508) asks “Why did this happen to Moses only now, and not at the original giving of the Torah or when Moses was given the first set of tablets?” Let me offer a possible explanation: In this moment, Moses is elevated to Divine partner in reconciliation. Some background: Upon seeing the people dancing around the Golden Calf, Moses shattered the first set of tablets. The people acknowledged their wrong doing. Moses went back up the mountain and pleaded with God on behalf of the Israelites. As the sign of forgiveness, God directs Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you shattered” (Exodus 34:1). This set of tablets is uniquely a shared project.
Moses will reveal his enduring radiance whenever he speaks on God’s behalf. The Torah will explain that Moses alone spoke with God “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). Moses’ aura will set him apart. In daily exchanges with the people, Moses will keep a veil in place, conveying his elevated role and the mystery of Divine potency.
Although Moses is the supreme prophet in our tradition, we too are encouraged to draw toward the Divine along with seeing the good in others, even while we acknowledge their failings. Taking the high road will make us partners with God and illuminate us.