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Taste of Torah: Ki Tissa

 וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא-יָדַע, כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו–בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ.וַיַּרְא אַהֲרֹן וְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, וְהִנֵּה קָרַן, עוֹר פָּנָיו; וַיִּירְאוּ, מִגֶּשֶׁת אֵלָיו

…Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while God talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams; and they were afraid to come near him.

—Exodus 34:29-30


After smashing the original stone tablets in anger at the construction of the Golden Calf, Moses again ascends the mountain to create a second set of tablets, and to plead to God on behalf of the errant Israelites. The prophet experiences a new level of closeness with Divinity, but returns to his people’s camp physically marked by the experience: beams of light that shoot out from Moses’ face, terrifying the children of Israel, who demand that their leader begins to cover his face as he reveals further revelation to the people.

The difficult work of negotiating the Israelites’ relationship with the Divine is not without consequence, and Moses’ struggle has manifested physically, marking him as one with the honor and the heartache of arbitrating between God and the people. In following his sacred mission, Moses has earned an unprecedented closeness with the Holy One, but at the same time sacrificed the relationship he once had with his people, who can no longer bear to look at his face. 

This forfeiture of self is not unlike the one described by author bell hooks in her essay, “Altars of Sacrifice,” In her reflection on the work of Haitain-American artist Basquiat, hooks describes the way in which the painter ceded parts of his essential self in his art, in order to appeal to the white-dominated art world. Basquiat laid himself bare in order to access a cultural conversation, says hooks, that simultaneously appreciated his art but sensationalized his personhood. Basquiat’s art became not unlike Moses’ veil: a way to remain among people who could not encounter his full and fundamental self. 

Like Moses, the project of Basquiat’s life that allowed him to connect with his audience, but brought with it both public connection and painful, private alienation. Moses, too, speaks readily to the people en masse, but now must engage from behind a veil, unseen. His message can be received by the Israelites, but his visage cannot—instead, Moses’ face is beheld only by God.  Perhaps this is the key difference between the fulfilling life of the prophet, and the pain of the artist: Moses still had somewhere to go where he could still be wholly seen. 

This Shabbat, may we work to reflect the same recognition from the Divine in our community, to see each other deeply in our fullest selves.