Parshat Ki Tisa: Beams of Light

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Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel. He studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar (1985-86 and 1990-91) and received semicha from the Joseph & Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary    


How close to God can we get? And what effect do our spiritual journeys have on our personalities and our relationships with the people around us? Jewish tradition is filled with figures who strove for closeness to God. Their paths are described and explored in the Torah, Talmud, Midrashim and Hassidic stories. While all were elevated by the quest, for some it was particularly challenging. This week’s parsha of Ki Tissa provides a window into those spiritual journeys and their effects.

“When Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord” (Shemot 34: 29)

Unlike other prophets whose prophecy was episodic, Moshe had constant contact with God[1]. Yet, he remained unaware of the unique, distinguishing light which indicated a man touched by God. When the Jewish people see him, they recoil in terror.

For most people, creating connection to God is difficult. Many Jews identify with the struggles of the great Hassidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He was a spiritual genius who was tormented by his inability to forge a consistent relationship with God. Sometimes, his prayers flowed, creating a sense of spiritual ecstasy and connection, but such experiences were fleeting, and ephemeral. By the next day, he could neither describe his encounter nor recapture it[2]. He felt excluded from God’s presence as if the Almighty was deliberately driving him away[3].

While Rabbi Nachman’s sometimes felt rejected by God, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s spirituality drove away the people around him. His years of hiding from the Romans in a cave enabled him to reach great heights of spirituality, but this piety came at a high price. On his first excursion out of the cave, he spotted a farmer ploughing his fields. Unable to accept any concession to physical needs, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai burned up the people around him. Ironically, it was God who rejected this destructive spiritual elitism. “Have you come to destroy my world?” he asked Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; commanding one of the greatest mystics of all time to return to his cave and connect to a Torah that would allow him to coexist with other mortals[4].

If Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s encounter with God led him to destroy others, Yitzhak’s came at great personal cost. The Midrash suggests that as Yitzhak lay on the altar preparing to be sacrificed by his father, he gazed up towards the Shechina and he was blinded by what he saw[5]. Yitzhak modelled extraordinary spiritual heroism and self-sacrifice which was repeated by generations of Jewish martyrs. But the price was high for him and for his family.

Our Midrash contrasts the blinding effects of Yitzchak’s engagement with the heavens with Moshe’s experience. While Yitzchak modelled supreme calm and passivity in his divine service, the rabbis portray Moshe’s time in heaven as spent clasping on to the divine throne and battling with the angels for possession of the Torah[6]. Moshe was not just a deeply spiritual person, he was also a leader, defender and teacher of the Jewish people. Perhaps this is what enabled him to withstand the overwhelming power of the heavens and to return with the spiritual glow on his face.

But why would God bestow an external mark of Moshe’s inner spiritual achievements? A Midrash suggests that the light on Moshe’s face reflected his modesty. Moshe’s reticence to look at the Burning Bush or to derive benefit from the Shechinah were rewarded with radiance shining from his face.

A second reason is offered by the Hizkuni. He answers that whereas the first set of tablets were given with thunder, lightning and shofar blasts, the second set which followed the sin of the Golden Calf were given without any of that drama. Consequently, people could question whether God had fully forgiven the Jewish people for the Golden Calf and whether Moshe should remain their leader. God foresaw the potential for another rebellion, so he blessed Moshe with this irrefutable sign demonstrating his special status[7]. Sadly, the sin of the Golden Calf diminished the people’s ability to withstand spiritual encounters, so they were overwhelmed by Moshe’s new appearance and retreated from his presence. Moshe in his great modesty brought them back.

Despite their initial reticence to look at their teacher, the Jewish people benefitted forever from the glorious glow emanating from Moshe’s face. The Sforno notes that Moshe’s miraculous radiance set a pattern for the future. Ever since that moment, the faces of great Torah teachers have radiated the depth and beauty of their Torah study and their exceptional loving kindness[8].

Hanging above my desk is a gallery of pictures of rabbis who have guided and inspired me. Amongst them are Rabbi Brovender and Rabbi Riskin who headed Ohr Torah Stone’s Yeshivat Hamivtar. When I look up at them, I am reminded how privileged I am to have teachers whose Torah is warm, generous, scholarly and inspiring. I am deeply grateful that they never rushed to judgement, but always encouraged us on our spiritual journeys. Looking at their faces, I feel privileged to detect a glimpse of the glow that distinguishes the greatest Torah scholars.

[1] For the difference between Moshe and other prophets see Rambam, Introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed.
[2] Rabbi Natan of Nemirov, Sichot Haran,1
[3] Rabbi Natan of Nemirov, Shivchei Haran 1: 11
[4] Talmud, Shabbat 33b
[5] Midrash, Devarim Rabbah 11: 3
[6]  Talmud, Shabbat 88b.
[7] Commentary of the Hizkuni to Bereishit 34: 29.
[8] See for example Talmud, Eruvin 13b which tells how Rav always sat behind his teacher Rabbi Meir in the classroom. Rav excelled in his Torah studies, but he said that had he been privileged to sit in front of Rabbi Meir and to set eyes on the rabbi while he taught, the experience would have made him even wiser.

Shabbat Shalom!


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