28.7. Moses Descends from Mount Sinai (34:27-35)

(27) And the Lord said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.

(28) And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water; and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

(29) 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, since he had spoken with Him.

(30) Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him.

(31) But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them.

(32) Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the Lord had imparted to him on Mount Sinai.

(33) And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.

(34) Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,

(35) the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with Him.

(27) And the Lord said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel: The text of this fundamental system of commandments (vv. 11-26) must be written in a book (not on tablets), like the Book of the Covenant of portion Mishpatim (24:7).

The making of the covenant involves three components: the proclamation, the tablets, and a book containing the legislative code. In the first instance, the process included the giving of the Torah, the giving of the first set of tablets, and the legislative code of portion Mishpatim. This second time, the concluding of the covenant consists of God’s consent to remain among the Jewish people, the second set of tablets, and the legislative code as given here, inscribed in a book.

(28) And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights: These forty days and forty nights correspond to the interval of the same length that Moses remained on the mountain the first time. And now Moses must learn the Torah a second time. His first forty days was for studying the a priori Torah – what is correct and proper in the ideal sense. And this second interval is for learning the a posteriori Torah – how errors can be corrected after the fact.

He ate no bread and drank no water: Again, this is a repeat of Moses’ first stay on the mountain. It emphasizes the unnatural, transcendental nature of the understanding that Moses received during both periods.

And he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments: On the second tablets, as on the first ones, only the Ten Commandments – the Decalogue – were inscribed.

It is not clear from the text who inscribed these words on the tablets. A simple grammatical reading of the text would suggest that it was Moses, since Moses is the subject at the beginning of the sentence, and no other subject is mentioned after that. However, the Torah told us earlier (34:1) that God Himself inscribed the second tablets: “The Lord said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” Apparently, then, we must understand the inscription of the Decalogue on the second tablets as a collaborative effort of God and Moses together. And this is in fact the singular significance of the second tablets – they are a joint creation by God and man.

(29) So Moses came down from Mount Sinai: This happened on the tenth of Tishri, 120 days after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Moses had been on the mountain for three consecutive forty-day periods: To receive the first tablets, to pray for forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf, and to receive the second tablets. This day was later established as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for all generations to come (see Leviticus, ch. 16 and comments there).

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, since he had spoken with Him: The Torah does not say here, as was said in the case of the first tablets, “tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: they were inscribed on the one side and on the other” (32:15). Rather, here a new detail comes to light: “The skin of Moses’ face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him.” Thus, Moses now acquires a quality that until now only the tablets themselves possessed: His face is illuminated with a radiance that shines in every direction.

The first time, the light of the Divine teachings came only from the tablets, which Moses brought down from the mountain. Moses was only a messenger, not a participant, in bringing the Divine light to the world. And those first tablets were subsequently broken.

The second time, Moses is a participant in the creation of the tablets – he carved them from stone, and, perhaps, even wrote their inscription jointly with God. But not only that. This time Moses is the actual subject of the transmission of the Divine light – the light comes from Moses himself, and not from the tablets he is holding in his hands. Therefore, this time the tablets of the Divine light, delivered to the lower world, will not be broken.

(29) Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him: Moses does not realize that he has now himself become the source of the Torah. This lack of awareness was a necessary aspect of Moses’ role in this process.

An essential element of Moses’ character was his “renunciation of self” (also evident in the phrase, “But if not, erase me from the record which You have written!,” 32:32). Moses strove to convey to the people exactly what he received from God, without adding anything at all of his own. Tradition calls this approach aspaklaria meira, “transparent glass.” Moses had to take this approach in order for the Torah to be transmitted without distortion.

But in fact, the transmission of the Divine teachings from heaven to earth, from the mountaintop to the people, is impossible without active human participation. The true Divine light below is not just an exact copy of the Divine light above (as were the first tablets, which had to be broken), but a refraction of that light through the individuality of each person – his or her active participation in the formation and formulation of the Divine truth. Although this approach will find its fullest expression in the final Book of the Torah (Deuteronomy, Moses’ five-week-long address to the people at the end of his life, which he delivered at his own initiative and in his own language), it has already begun with the second tablets.

(30) Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him: In the same way that at Sinai they were afraid to make direct contact with God (“all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning… and fell back and stood at a distance,” 20:15), here too they fear direct contact with Moses.

(31) But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them: For Aaron and the people, the idea that a human can be the bearer of Divine revelation seemed so improbable, that only through Moses’ efforts were they finally able to accept it.

(31-32) But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the Lord had imparted to him on Mount Sinai: We see here the concentric circles of a spiritual progression: Aaron, then the heads of the community, and then all the Israelites.

Tradition explains the order of transmission of the Divine teachings as follows. First, Moses taught Aaron the given passage of the Torah. Then Aaron’s sons were also included, and Moses repeated. Then the “chieftains in the assembly” were brought in (and Moses repeated again). And finally, “all the Israelites came near” (and Moses repeated yet once more).

Thus, Aaron heard the Divine teachings from Moses four times (and three times he saw Moses teaching it to others, which served for him as lessons in pedagogy). Aaron’s sons listened three times, the elders twice, and the people once.

And yet (unlike the judicial system described at 18:22), Moses did not allow Aaron or the chieftains to educate the people – he insisted on teaching them himself. Each person, on hearing the Divine teachings, had to perceive those aspects that were most relevant to him. But only Moses had such a complete command of the teachings that he could present them through the unique perspective of each one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews.

(33-35) And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out … the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with Him: Here the Torah describes how Moses transmitted to the people the Divine teachings that he received in the Tent of Meeting. In that process, when Moses received God’s revelation, or when he taught the people, his face was exposed and radiated Divine light. At all other times (in the course of normal, everyday life), Moses’ face was covered with a veil.

The transmission of the teachings to the people is described, which Moses himself receives in the Tent of Meeting. During the transmission of the teachings, when Moses receives the revelation from God, or when he teaches the people, his face is open and shines. But the rest of the time (i.e., in everyday life) Moses’ face is covered with a veil.

And so it continued throughout all the years of the journey through the wilderness. Just as the light shone from Moses’ face only when he and the people were studying the Torah, but it did not penetrate into everyday life, so was Moses himself shut off from the ordinary life of the people. Practically speaking, Moses did not participate in that aspect of the life of the nation, and was not involved in it in any way.

This separation of the Divine teachings from everyday life was necessary in order to introduce religious feeling into a rigid framework. It was precisely the absence of such a framework that led to the creation of the golden calf. But at the same time, Moses’ removal from the everyday life of the people led to a loss of understanding between him and the new generation who grew up in the wilderness, and this ultimately led to Moses’ losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land[1].

[1] We shall deal with this issue in our commentary to Numbers.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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