The text continues the discussion about the building of the Mishkan, (the Tabernacle). Moses is told to take a census of the people. Each Israelite adult over the age of twenty must contribute exactly half a shekel, the money will be counted to deduce the number of adults, and then the money will be used in the work of Mishkan. Then the other artefacts to be used in the ritual are described: a copper washstand, the anointing oil and the incense. God identifies Bezalel, a man described as having ruach Elohim – the spirit of God, as the chief artisan and architect of the Mishkan, along with Ohaliav. Moses is told to remind the people about the importance of maintaining Shabbat as the sign of the covenant between God and Israel forever. When God has finished speaking, God gives Moses the original set of the two Tablets, which are inscribed directly by God, and Moses returns to the people.
The Torah's focus then moves back down the mountain, to the people who have been waiting so long for Moses’ return, and the narrative also tells us what they have been doing. They have been made anxious and upset at Moses's delay up on the mountain, believing him dead, and so we find that they had approached Aaron to make them an idol to worship. Aaron had created a molten calf from gold for the people to worship, and had declared a festival where the people could offer sacrifices to the calf and dance before it.
On the mountain, God tells Moses that the people have turned away from the divine laws and that God will destroy them and will make the descendants of Moses a great nation instead, but Moses pleads with God to remember the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to spare the people. On his return, Moses smashes the Tablets and, together with the Levites, resumes control of the people. Moses then returns up the mountain and begs God to reaffirm the Covenant. Moses carves a new second set of Tablets, and God appears to Moses in a cloud, renewing the covenant with the Israelites. Moses remains on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, and when he descends the mountain a second time, his face is radiant because of this encounter with God. The Israelites are afraid of this and Moses covers his face with a veil when speaking to them, removing it when Moses speaks with God.
“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in Moses' hand, that 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. (34:20,30)
When Moses was in the presence of God that time on the mountain, something happened to him that was, quite literally transformative. Beams of light radiated from the skin of his face as he descended the mountain. The word used for the beam of light - “karan”- is connected to a word we are more familiar with – Keren, meaning a horn. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible followed Jerome, one of the Church Fathers, who had misunderstood the difference and so of course artists such as Michelangelo and Donatello who read the texts in Latin, depicted Moses as having horns. And this anti-Semitic stereotype of the devilish Jew has been with us ever since – I can remember one of my childhood rabbis being challenged at a school visit to take off his kippah and show the class the horns that were surely hiding beneath it.
The rays of light that the bible describes are presumably something that distinguished Moses as having had a particularly close encounter with the Divine – they are more often seen as halos or auras in religious paintings from other faith traditions. It is particularly poignant that this physical sign of Moses’ experience of God became the source of historical racism and ignorance about Jews. But there is another aspect to this tale that is not well understood and from which we can take a more positive lesson. Moses was entirely unaware that his skin was radiating light as he came down from the mountain. He had been in close communion with God, had been offered for only his descendants to survive, had argued with God, had become violently angry when confronted by the idolatry of the people, had gone once more to God and had spent a very long time creating the second set of the Ten Commandments. He had gone from ecstatic high to terrible low, from great joy to great fury and back; he had been transformed by the journey he had undergone – and he did not know it.
Moses was, we know, a man who felt he would not be a great leader when God approached him at the burning bush. We are told of him that he was modest. He clearly spent a lot of his time in self-doubt and uncertainty, and that self-image was fed by the rebellions and mutterings against him of the Israelites. He did not in any was ‘do’ self-aggrandisement. He simply didn’t notice that his skin was radiating great light. And that is the nub of the story – rather like the burning bush which would have taken time and observation in order to see was not being consumed, the truly transformative events are often not the ones we especially notice at the time. And the truly great person gets on quietly and efficiently with the business in hand, rather than brags or boasts or swaggers to make sure everyone else pays enough attention.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 2012