Over the decades, I have returned countless times to the final verses of this week’s parashah, trying to understand what is happening.
"And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was shining/radiant/glowing, since he had spoken with God. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses' face was shining/radiant/glowing; and they shrank from coming near him." (Exodus 34:29-30)
The Hebrew term for what happened to the skin of Moses is that it became keren or. The words have been translated into many different phrases including beams of splendour, divine rays of glory and even golden horns. It is very hard to translate what keren or means. What is clear however is that the rays originated when Moses began his encounter with God.
This year I want to lift up one understanding of the term, found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, the 1981 ẖumash that our neighbour to the north Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut z”l edited. On page 665 we find the following—We too say of a person that his “face shines” when he appears to be aglow from an inner radiance. Perhaps Moses had an extra glow attached to him because of his experience with the Divine, an intimate experience no other human ever attained.
On that same page, Rabbi Plaut also mentions that one of the most famous artistic renditions of Moses was painted by Rembrandt, and it hangs in an art gallery in Berlin. As I gazed at the painting online, I noticed that the face of Moses was painted brighter than any other part of the painting. Perhaps this moment of keren or is what Rembrandt was trying to capture. I don’t know how much Torah Rembrandt knew, but it is interesting to note that Rembrandt lived in a Jewish quarter in Amsterdam in the 1600s and is said to have worked with Jewish models.
I am still not sure I understand what keren or means. I invite you to spend some time looking at the Rembrandt painting and sharing with me what you see. You can see the painting if you Google “Moses and the Tablets of the Law.”
Rabbi R Fryer Bodzin