Sunshiny Faces*

Exodus 34: 29-35

29 And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.

30 And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him.

31 And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them.

32 And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in mount Sinai.

33 And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face.

34 But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded.

35 And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

"We're all in our places

with sunshiny faces..."

What is it that makes a person's face radiate light, as happened to Moses in today's reading from Exodus, and to Jesus in the passage from Luke?

Given my own point of departure, I shall be focusing initially on the story of Moses, attempting to gain insight from the teachings of Jewish preachers and interpreters through the ages.

Interestingly, most of the ancient Jewish sages seemed less concerned with explaining the essence of Moses' illuminations than with another difficulty that arises when we view the narrative in its broader context.

The incident of Moses' shining countenance occurs, we may recall, as he is descending from Mount Sinai the second time. At this point in the narrative he has successfully interceded with the Almighty, persuading him not to destroy his people in spite of their unspeakable transgression in worshipping the Golden Calf. It is at this point that Moses comes down from the mountain bearing a replacement for the original set of tablets that he smashed in his rage the first time round.

The Jewish teachers were understandably troubled by the discrepancy between the two episodes: Why, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai the first time, was there no equivalent mention of light issuing from his countenance?

Some, like Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah in his 13th-century commentary the "Hizzekuni.", explained that the first revelation, accompanied as it was by lightning, thunder and the actual voice of God, did not require any further confirmation of its supernatural source. The glowing of Moses' face was needed only for Moses' second return from the mountain, in order to fend off any potential skeptics who might otherwise accuse Moses of counterfeiting the contents of his message.

A different approach is reflected in the opinion of the second-century teacher Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, Moses had experienced an equivalent "enlightenment" the first time as well. However that was not the chief interest of the Scriptural narrator, whose attention is focused primarily on the people's reaction to Moses' appearance.

Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai says: Come and see how severe is the power of transgression! Before the people had set about sinning [i.e., by fashioning the golden calf] what does it say about them? "And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel" (Exodus 24:17). They did not fear, nor did they tremble.

However, after they had stretched out their hands to sin, what does it say about them? "And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him" (Exodus 34:30).

It should be noted that, according to Jewish legend, Rabbi Simeon might have been speaking from personal experience. It is related in the Talmud that, because of his outspoken criticism of the Roman occupation Rabbi Simeon was forced into hiding, remaining for twelve years in a cave with his son, occupied in intense religious study. When at length he emerged from his seclusion, the tale continues, Rabbi Simeon had reached such a sublime degree of spirituality that initially he could not tolerate the sight of simple people going about their daily activities. He would direct his gaze at the unfortunates and they would burst into flames. The good Lord was displeased with this unhealthy attitude and "grounded" the Rabbi, ordering him back to the cave for an additional twelve years until he learned how to conduct himself properly in human society.

I wonder whether Rabbi Simeon's depiction of the Israelites' responses to Moses' illumination might not have been influenced by the tensions with which he himself had struggled between his spiritual vocation and his involvement in the company of imperfect mortals.

Indeed, there is a consensus among the commentators that what Moses experienced during his sojourn atop Mount Sinai was a sublime and mysterious experience, so powerful that some of that aura remained with him even after his descent to earthly domains.

Nevertheless, I wish to propose a different interpretation of the incident and its lessons. My point of departure is the Bible's description of what Moses was doing on Mount Sinai.

There is no denying that Moses does have a close encounter with the divine in that enigmatic passage where he asks to see God's glory, and is ultimately permitted to witness God's "back parts" pass before him while he stands in the cleft of the rock. However all that occurred prior to his most recent trip up the mountain.

The message that God transmitted to Moses atop Mount Sinai is not the mystical teaching or metaphysical pronouncement that we should have expected to find on the basis of the interpretations of the classic commentators. Quite the contrary, it begins with an declaration of God's compassion and its limits, and continues with a reassurance that the covenant of Abraham will remain forever in force, in spite of the people's failings, and that they will be allowed to inherit their homeland.

However the chief part of God's message here is a sequence of specific commandments and regulations: To eradicate utterly the idolatry of the Canaanites, to avoid associating with them or acknowledging their gods. The people are urged to observe the Sabbath, the pilgrimage festivals of Passover and the Feast of Weeks; to uphold the sanctity of the firstlings and the first fruits; to honour the sacrificial offerings by not offering them with leaven and by not leaving the leftover meat until morning; not to seethe a kid in its mother's milk.

In short, what we appear to have before us is a representative sampling of what makes up the bulk of the Torah, and characterizes the normal Jewish expressions of spirituality: A series of commandments that accompany the Jews through all the diverse activities of their lives, providing them with the means and opportunities to sanctify their material and social worlds with the imprint of the divine. Truly, this stands in polar contrast with our stereotypical ideas of mysticism and piety, according to which holiness can be achieved only through the rejection of life in this world.

Indeed, what distinguishes more than anything else Moses' last ascent of the mountain from his first is the active role that he takes in the process. The first time, God did everything for him, from the hewing of the stones to the etching of the commandments. Moses and the people appear there only as passive onlookers.

And the outcome was disastrous.

The Israelites, rescued so recently form slavery, had never been called upon to take responsibility for their destiny. Without Moses and without any visible guidance from God they fall apart.

Not so the second time around. From the beginning, Moses launches himself into a desperate appeal against God's decree, standing up on behalf of his flock with an attitude that would be regarded as blasphemous by anyone who is not acquainted with his Biblical precedents, such as Abraham's attempt to save the citizens of Sodom by challenging God's justice. After all, the very name "Israel" has its origins in Jacob's paradigmatic wrestling match with a supernatural being.

Unlike the original set of tablets, the second set were etched on stone tablets that had to be hewn personally by Moses, and it was this fact that made them more precious in the sight of God and the people.

The nineteenth-century Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk drew upon this idea to explain an ancient Talmudic tradition, according to which "both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets" were housed in the ark that was carried by the Israelites and placed in the sanctuary.

Rabbi Meir Simhah concludes from this tradition that "the first tablets, which were fashioned entirely by God, are "fragmentary"; while the ones that Moses carved are complete." From this (he concludes) we can learn that no created thing is intrinsically holy. Holiness is derived only through Israel's observance of the Torah in accordance with the will of the Creator. It does not reside in Heaven, but is the result of the interaction between humans and God.

An ancient Jewish legend relates that after God concluded the writing of the Torah, Moses wiped the pen on his forehead, and it was this ethereal ink stain that continued to radiate as he walked among the people. Perhaps we are justified in learning from this image that it was Moses' participation in the process of revelation that enhanced its value before God.

This distinction between the first and second versions of the Decalogue is also reflected in a difference related to their content. According to Jewish tradition, the text of the "ten commandments" that appears in the book of Exodus is the one that was etched on the first tablets, whereas the slightly different version found in Deuteronomy was that of the second set. The two versions are almost identical, but the few differences that do exist are instructive.

The most substantial discrepancy between the two versions lies in the differing explanations that they provide for the institution of the sabbath day. The Exodus version ties the sabbath to a theological claim, as an acknowledgment that God is the creator of the universe. However the Deuteronomy version focuses on the human benefits of a weekly day of rest, as a means of preventing the exploitation of one's workers and household. To do otherwise would be a denial of God's purpose in the liberation from Egyptian slavery.

I believed that this message is also borne out by the concluding verses that tell of the veil that Moses placed upon his face:

And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him in mount Sinai.

And when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face.

But when Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded.

And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

If we read these verses very carefully, we will observe that they make reference to three different kinds of occasions. While Moses was teaching the people he left his face uncovered. So too, when he was conversing with the Almighty, he removed the veil from his face. On what occasions did Moses keep his light covered? By default, we are left with those times when he was occupied in private pursuits. These were the times when there was no reason to bask in the divine light, and hence Moses concealed it with a veil.

The renowned fifteen-century scholar-statesman Don Isaac Abravanel summarized the phenomenon as follows:

When Moses became aware of the light that was radiating from his face, he realized it was not fitting to make use of that radiance for trivial, profane activities, such as eating, drinking and sleeping, or during casual conversations with his wife and family, as long as he was not speaking about matters related to the Torah and its precepts.

However, while he was occupied in transmitting the divine influence to the children of Israel in order to instruct them in the Torah and its commandments, he did not place the veil over his face, so that their eyes could behold their teacher.

By extension, it would appear that the veil remained on Moses' face even while he was engaged in solitary meditation, as long as he was not involved in communication with God or the people. This further reinforces our understanding of the lesson of the story: The Lord did not reveal his words to solitary mystics. Those upon whom the message has been conferred are implored to bring it to the people, to shout it and live it in the marketplace, not to sit in their tents in a state of passive navel-gazing or theorizing.

Luke's description of Jesus' transfiguration places him in the company of Moses and Elijah. The association with Moses should require no further explanation in light of what we have said above. However the appearance of Elijah provides an equally striking example of the qualities that we have been describing. Elijah, fleeing from Ahab and Jezebel, was granted a mystical experience of the divine in a cave at Mount Horeb that was virtually identical to that of Moses. So enthusiastic was he about the encounter that he continued to stand at the entrance to the cave, his face covered in his mantle, until the Lord commanded him "Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus," dispatching the prophet on a mission. Again we see that Scripture does not value any encounter with the Almighty that does not translate into action and involvement in the world.

Let us return to the question that I posed at the outset of this talk: What is it can make our face radiate light?

I have a very simple answer to that question: Electricity.

For some inexplicable reason, this image was not mentioned by any of our ancient commentators, but it nonetheless seems apt that the spiritual energy that issued through Moses is not to be compared to fire, but to electrical power, which can exist only in the form of a current that flows continuously to and from its source. [Please note that this is meant symbolically. This is not an invitation for you to stick your fingers into the nearest electrical socket.]

Religious inspiration must also be a continual dialogue and struggle between the Creator and his creatures. When that current is interrupted, or even if it fails to return to its source, then the energy has no use, and we find ourselves donning our figurative veils.

It therefore strikes me as particularly fitting to conclude this talk by thanking you for your hospitality in the words of the traditional blessing that is to bestowed through the Hebrew priests:

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:

May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

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*Guest sermon delivered at St. Peter's Church (Anglican), Calgary, February 22 1998