Ki Tissa 5774 – The Horns of Moses

In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned the Renaissance artist Michelangelo to design and contruct his tomb in Rome.  In the course of his work, Michelangelo created one of the most famous statues in the world, known simply as the Moses.  Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary of Michelangelo, wrote a description of the statue:

Michelangelo's MosesMichelangelo finished the Moses in marble…, unequalled by any modern or ancient work. Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tables, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, the hairs, so difficult to render in sculpture, being so soft and downy that it seems as if the iron chisel must have become a brush. The beautiful face, like that of a saint and mighty prince, seems as one regards it to need the veil to cover it, so splendid and shining does it appear, and so well has the artist presented in the marble the divinity with which God had endowed that holy countenance. The draperies fall in graceful folds, the muscles of the arms and bones of the hands are of such beauty and perfection, as are the legs and knees, the feet being adorned with excellent shoes, that Moses may now be called the friend of God more than ever, since God has permitted his body to be prepared for the resurrection before the others by the hand of Michelangelo. The Jews still go every Saturday in troops to visit and adore it as a divine, not a human thing.  (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists Michelangelo Buonarotti of Florence, Painter, Sculptor and Architect)

Where did they come from?

This morning’s Torah portion, as it turns out.

After the disaster with the Golden Calf, God wants to wipe out the Israelites altogether and start over with a new nation descending from Moses.

Moses, in his role as God’s therapist, manages to talk God down and gets God to give the people a second chance.  Moses then descends the mountain to investigate the damage.  He breaks the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, cleans house, and heads back up to the top of Mount Sinai to reestablish the relationship between God and Israel.

Moses is on a roll.  So he decides to strike while the iron is hot.  Now is the time to ask God the question that he has been saving for just the right moment:  “Show me Your glory.”

Moses wants to see God’s essence.  That, it turns out, is a bit too much even for someone like Moses to handle, so God agrees to shelter Moses in the cleft of a rock while the Divine Countenance is revealed.  Then, Moses will be able to catch a glimpse after God’s Presence has passed by.

Even that is pretty impressive.  When Moses comes down the mountain after forty days, everybody is excited for the reunion.  Moses has a shiny new set of Tablets, and the people are eager to have their leader back.  But as soon as they see him, the Israelites recoil in fear.

In his encounter with God, something has happened to Moses’ face.

The Torah describes it.  קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו (karan or panav) – Our Etz Hayim chumash translates it as “the skin of his face was radiant.” (Exodus 34:29) Robert Alter says, “the skin of his face glowed.”

In other words, Moses was radioactive.

But it is kind of a strange expression.  In fact, it is the only time in the entire Hebrew Bible that the verb karan appears.  The word means “to send out rays [of light]”

There are far more common words that would have conveyed the same image.  L’ha-ir, for example, is a common Hebrew word that means “to shine.”  Why didn’t the Torah use that word?  There must be something unique about this particular event that would explain the use of such a rare expression.

In the 4th century, Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for the Catholic Church.  When he got to our word, he connected the verb karan to the noun keren, which is a common Hebrew word that means “horn.”  He translated it into the Latin cornuta, meaning “horns.”  The Latin translation would go something like this:  Moses had sprouted horns from the skin of his face.

It doesn’t really fit the context.  First of all, horns would grow from the head, not from the skin of the face, as the text describes.  Second, it makes a whole lot more sense that Moses would come away from his encounter with God reflecting some of the Divine fire that engulfed the mountain.

Jerome probably did not mean anything negative by attributing horns to Moses.  In the ancient world, horns were often associated with power.  The Babylonians and Egyptians had horned deities, and the Romans used horns to symbolize might, depicting horned statues of Jupiter.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, which Jerome certainly knew and understood, translated karan as “glorified.”  Jerome probably had something similar in mind.

But not everyone knew that.  It was in the 11th century that depictions of a horned Moses started appearing in Christian art.  The idea of Jews having horns also emerged around this time.  It was an especially pernicious accusation, possibly rooted in  a misunderstanding of Jerome’s translation.

In 1267, the Council of Vienna decreed that all Jews had to wear a special, pointed, horned hat.  Jews in other European communities over the following centuries were forced to wear other degrading symbols or items of clothing – often having something to do with horns.  (Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, pp. 44-46.)

Why horns?

Horns were associated with the devil.  And so along with horns, Jews were also accused by medieveal European anti-Semites of having large, hooked noses, tails, goat-like beards, and cloven hooves.  It was a nasty rumor that persists to this day.  When my sister-in-law met her roommate upon first arriving at university, she asked her, in all sincerity, “where are your horns?”

What did Michelangelo mean by giving his Moses horns?  It’s hard to say.  There had been artistic renderings of Moses for hundereds of years, some with horns, and some without.  Some of those that depicted him with horns did so in a particularly evil light.

But there is no evidence that Michelangelo meant anything nasty by it in his Moses.  He was an artist, not a biblical scholar.  So he made Moses according to the words in his Bible: with horns coming out of his face.

But we still haven’t answered the question of why the Torah uses such an unusual word in Hebrew.  The Bible scholar Nahum Sarna suggests that the word karan “is probably a pointed allusion to the golden calf, for keren is the usual word for a horn.  It subtly emphasizes that the true mediator between God and Israel was not the fabricated, lifeless image of the horned animal, as the people thought, but the living Moses.” (Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 221.)

In other words, the Torah describes Moses’ glowing face with the word karan to emphasize that there can be no physical representations of God.  A horned calf made out of gold is a false god.  God cannot be encountered through an idol.  The Divine is not comprised of stone, wood, or precious metals, which are inanimate and lifeless.  God’s will is transmitted through human beings – through the Prophet Moses, and through the written and oral Torah that our tradition traces back to Moses’ intimate conversations with God.

After the people recoil from Moses’ glowing face, he gently urges them to come back.  “It’s ok.  It’s ok.  Everything will be fine.”

From then on, whenever he shares his conversations with God, the Israelites are illuminated by the Divine light reflecting off of Moses’ face.

And it is a conversation that continues to this day.  We have the records of Moses’ interactions with God, and the records of generation after generation of students and teachers trying to understand, apply, and extend those conversations to meet the evolving needs of contemporary life.  Whenever we engage in that conversation, we too are illuminated by the radiance that shone from the skin of Moses’ face.

A Different Kind of Hero

Gary and Sheila with the Berkenwalds

Gary and Sheila with the Berkenwalds

We recently lost my beloved father-in-law, Dr. Gary Romalis, z”l.  The following is a short tribute I delivered during the week of mourning.  For a more detailed article about Gary, see this article written by my wife’s cousin, Renee Ghert-Zand.

A Jewish teaching that is often quoted at funerals is from Pirkei Avot, a collection of wisdom passed down from teacher to student nearly 2,000 years ago.  Eizehu gibor.  “Who is a hero?” it asks.  And then it gives the answer one would not expect.  Instead of describing someone strong physically, it offers a different answer, a Jewish answer.  Eizehu gibor – “Who is a hero?”  Hakovesh et yitzro – “A hero is someone who can master his desires.”  Self-control.  That is the Jewish definition of heroism.

My father-in-law Gary was not that kind of hero.  One of his favorite meals went something like this:  A piece of rye bread, a half-inch thick piece of salami, a half inch thick slice of onion, a half-inch thick layer of mayonnaise.

Gary was the other kind of hero – the kind who puts his own life at risk to save others.  He dedicated himself to protecting women, ensuring that they would always have control over their own bodies.  After being shot and nearly killed in his home while eating breakfast, Gary continued practicing medicine.  After being stabbed at work six years later, he persisted.  That kind of selflessness is heroic.

But there is much more to this hero.  My wife Dana often talks of the kind of father he was.  This hero, despite his long hours at the hospital, made his daughters his number one priority.  When he came home from work, there was nothing that could distract him from them.  Gary knew how to shut out all the distractions and be fully present.  When they were with him, they were the center of his world – and they knew it.  Whichever one was sitting on his lap, in that moment, was “his favorite.”

I did not know Gary then, but I can picture it because I have seen him as a grandparent.  This hero loved nothing more that to strip down to his underwear and give his grandchildren a bath.  Gary just wanted to be in their presence.

Gary was so proud of his children and grandchildren, and he let us know it constantly.  He gave love freely and unconditionally.  Whenever I shared a sermon, Gary was usually the first person to respond, always with “I love you and am so proud of you.”

As a father, it is Gary who I think about as my model for being Present with my children.  With all of the technology that modern life provides, it is so easy to be distracted from those we love.  Gary liked his technological toys, whether the latest iPhone or his GPS.  But it was always put away around his grandkids.  As a father, I think about Gary whenever I am tempted to look at my cell phone around my children.

I’d like to share two personal memories.

Back when Dana and I were dating, we hit a bump at one point, and she broke up with me, leaving me pretty devastated.  I found myself back in the house with Gary, in the kitchen.  Without saying a word, he pulled me into a big hug.  He then told me, both of us with tears in our eyes, that he and Sheila would always love me and that I would always have a place in their home.  That was the most memorable hug of my life.

Several years ago, Dana developed a pregnancy complication that endangered her life.  It was exactly the kind of serious medical condition that Gary specialized in.  Of course, Gary was on the phone with friends and colleagues at San Francisco General Hospital.  Only the best would be allowed to care for his daughter.

When she went in for surgery, Gary was with me in the hospital.  After the initial procedure, a nurse came up to report that Dana had developed complications in surgery.  I remember it vividly.  We were in the hallway.  I became faint, and had to sit down on the floor against the wall.  I can only imagine what he was feeling on the inside, but Gary’s external calmness was so reassuring.

A little while later, Dana was in the surgery recovery room, where visitors are normally not allowed.  That wasn’t going to keep us away.  I will always remember what he told me.  “Walk in like you own the place.”  And we did.  Thank God, Dana recovered.  Gary and Sheila’s presence at that difficult time was so comforting.  I will be forever grateful.

As one of three men blessed to be married to “a Romalis girl,” I am eternally indebted to my father-in-law.

I will miss him deeply.  He was a hero.