At the end of this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, the Torah describes how Moshe comes down from the mountain with a shining face. The passuk says karan ohr panav, “Moshe’s face shone very brightly,” from G-d’s presence. The people were so awestruck by seeing G-d’s presence on Moshe’s face that they stepped back; they were intimidated and didn’t come close to him. The light that was shining from his face was so powerful that Moshe actually had to put a covering on his face so that he could interact with the people.
The spiritual shines through the physical
This facial glow is something that we all have; it’s a very important part of what it means to be a human being. The Maharal says that this light is the neshama, the soul of the human being, becoming physically manifest by shining through the face. The soul is a spiritual reality, which manifests physically in a person through the light shining from his or her face. The proof of this, says the Maharal, is that when a person has passed away, when the neshama leaves and only the dead body remains, the face of a corpse is ashen and there is no longer any light on the person’s face. The difference between a corpse and a living person is the light, the facial glow. The light that comes from a person’s face is the physical manifestation of the soul. It’s the spiritual reality visible physically. Animals don’t have such a light shining from their face. Whether an animal is alive or dead is only visible by other signs – for example, lack of movement – not by any glow or lack thereof. Animals have a life force but they don’t have a soul like the human being. As the Book of Bereishit says, human beings were created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d, and this refers to the Divine soul which G-d has placed within us.
This is how we can understand the Gemara which says Kol hamalbin p’nei chaveiro barabim keiloo shofeich damim, “one who shames another person publicly, it is as if he has committed murder.” The Gemara explains this comparison to murder, saying that the blood drains from the shamed person’s face. The Maharal explains that there are different levels of embarrassment. To embarrass a person on any level is a terrible sin and regarded as one of the worst sins; to embarrass them publicly, where they actually go ashen with shame, is akin to murder. The Maharal says it’s not just a vague, symbolic comparison but actually very real because when somebody goes ashen, that glow is temporarily gone from his or her face. At that moment of embarrassment, it’s as if their very soul was knocked out of them because their face is not glowing anymore. So when the Gemara compares it to murder, it’s not just a vague symbolism but actually a form of murder, albeit a temporary one.
This is why we have to be extremely careful in the way we treat others. The glow on the face represents the neshama. All of Torah ethics regarding how to engage with people – with kindness and sensitivity – are founded on the principle that every person is created in G-d’s image, with a Divine part within, and therefore should be treated with utmost respect. The glow on the face reflects the essence of the Divine spark within each person, and is a constant reminder that we are not just physical beings but rather spiritual beings with a G-d-given neshama.
Given Moshe’s greatness, his glow was no ordinary glow. The rays of light shining from his face were so awe-inspiring that the people were too intimidated to approach him. The Netziv explains that Moshe’s face was glowing because he had just come down from Mount Sinai after having spent forty days learning the Oral Torah with G-d in order to be able to teach it to the people. His face was beaming from the spirituality that comes from the connection with G-d through the power of learning Torah.
The greater the effort exerted, the greater the spiritual energy
Rav Mordechai Gifter says that Moshe was glowing because of all the effort he had put in to bringing down the second set of Tablets. Earlier in the parsha, when Moshe comes down the mountain with the first set of Tablets containing the Ten Commandments and he sees the people worshipping the Golden Calf, he has to break the Tablets, help the people repent and beg G-d for forgiveness. He goes through this whole process and exerts so much effort that when he comes down with the second set of Tablets, which represented G-d’s forgiveness, his face was aglow from the effort he exerted. We know that the more effort one invests in a mitzvah, the greater its value. Moshe brought them to repentance and helped them overcome the terrible crises of the sin of the Golden Calf and therefore his face was glowing with a supernatural spiritual energy.
Bringing positive energy into our lives
Rashi focuses not so much on the glow of Moshe’s face but rather on the people’s reaction to it; they couldn’t cope with it. They were intimidated and so they backed off. Rashi contrasts this reaction to just a short while before this incident, when the people were at the foot of Mount Sinai and actually saw G-d’s presence descend on the mountain. Of course, G-d is above the physical world but a physical representation of the light and the energy of Hashem’s presence descended on Mount Sinai, and the people saw this and were not afraid. How come they were able to look at the revelation of G-d’s glory at Mount Sinai and now they couldn’t even look at Moshe’s face glowing with G-dliness? What changed?
What happened between the two was the sin of the Golden Calf, after which the people’s spiritual level fell. Rav Yerucham of Mir explains that when the people worshipped the Golden Calf, they brought upon themselves a terrible spiritual weakness, whereas before, they had been on a spiritual high – they had just come out of Egypt and had seen all of the miracles. They were able to see G-d’s presence and enjoy it, and be further uplifted. But now, after they had sinned, they fell spiritually and couldn’t cope with such glory. Conventional wisdom says that sin and failure are born from weakness, but it’s actually the reverse: sin and wrongdoing create weakness.
A key part of growth in life is momentum. When we do the right thing, we are strengthened; when we do the wrong thing, we become weakened. Strength and weakness are the result of how we live our lives, not merely the cause. What we do creates an atmosphere, either of strength or weakness, which permeates everything. Adam and Eve are the classic example of this: when they sinned they brought the whole world down with them. We, too, create either a positive or negative atmosphere. We can create positive or negative spiritual energy in our lives, in our homes and in our communities, depending on what we do.
Quenching a spiritual thirst
Rav Yerucham quotes in this context, from Deuteronomy (29:18), which describes a person who is leading a life of sin and not doing the right thing, simply following whatever he feels. It describes such a person as bringing thirst upon himself; his desires will take him from being satisfied with life to always being thirsty for more. The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, explains that the more a person gives into the evil inclination, the more it generates thirst. In other words, sins generate negative energy, weaken and bring down, in the same, but opposite, way that good deeds strengthen and uplift.
In his ethical will to his wife and children, the Vilna Gaon wrote that they must be careful not to become obsessed with the physical world because it’s like drinking salt water – the more you drink, the thirstier you become. This relates to what Rav Yerucham says, that when a person lives a life which is elevated and good and when everything that one does is for the purpose of serving Hashem, there is a positive energy created and we are satisfied. In contrast, giving in to our baser part does not bring about any satisfaction, but actually brings us down. The Torah tells us to embrace the physical world and everything that we do physically – from eating to earning a living to whatever physical activities we are involved in – and use it to serve Hashem. Torah is not a way of life which seeks to negate the physical; rather, it seeks to make the physical part of a broader value system. But when one pursues the physical world as an end in itself rather than as a means, it fills a person with emptiness. It’s like drinking salt water which just creates more thirst.
The beauty of Torah is that it gives us the framework of Hashem’s values to enjoy the physical world in a way which is truly satisfying. If we blindly pursue the physical, we will not be satisfied but merely thirsty for more. The more obsessed we become solely with the physical, the less satisfied we are. It creates its own thirst. Only when we engage with the physical world in the way that Hashem intended us to – within a framework of Torah values – can we quench our thirst and be satisfied.
What all of this means to us in our lives is that we have to put as much positive spiritual energy into our lives, even when we are confronted with a crisis. Moshe attained this aura in the midst of a crisis. He comes down the mountain, the people are worshipping the Golden Calf; he breaks the Tablets, helps the people repent, and begs G-d for forgiveness; then, his face shines. The spiritual energy that he created was in the midst of a crisis. We, too, can do that; the key is dedication to the cause of doing the right thing and not being self-obsessed.
Keeping the greater good in mind
Rav Elya Meir Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, explains that Moshe’s greatest moment was when he broke the Tablets because it showed his integrity and his commitment to the cause. G-d appointed Moshe to lead the people out of Egypt and give them the Torah. When he came down the mountain and saw them worshipping the Golden Calf, the Gemara says he came to the conclusion that people who are worshipping idols at the foot of Mount Sinai cannot receive the Torah and he broke the Tablets, as if to say the whole enterprise of giving the Torah to the Jewish people is over. Moshe had come to the conclusion that this mission for which he had been appointed could not be done. By breaking the Tablets, Moshe was actually admitting failure of his mission. He did without hesitation because it wasn’t about him, but about doing the right thing.
Sometimes, says Rav Elya Meir, we start off a task fully for the cause of the greater good; but then we get personally invested in something and it’s not easy to separate our personal interests, even when it’s a mitzvah. Moshe was able to separate his own interests from his tasks. This is why, says Rav Elya Meir, Moshe’s greatest moment was when he was able to say, this mission has failed and cannot be achieved and in the interests of the greater cause it’s better to break the Tablets than to give them the Torah. Afterwards, of course, they repented and did receive it; but at that point he was prepared to give up everything for the greater good. And that’s why Moshe merited such a great spiritual light.
When we aim to do the right thing and work toward the greater cause, we must set aside our personal interests. The more self-absorbed we are, the less satisfied we are going to be. And the more we are prepared to fulfil Hashem’s will, to give and to help others without a vested interest, the greater the light and spiritual energy we create in our lives.