One of the great thinkers of Judaism in the last century was the dean of Yeshiva University and chief rabbi of Bostom, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993). Rabbi Soloveitchik, who descended from an extremely prominent rabbinic family, was himself a master of Talmud, Halacha, Bible, and philosophy.
Rabbi Soloveitchik shared a lifelong respect and friendship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which began as fellow students in Berlin in the late 1920’s and lasted until the end of their lives. In 1980, in a particularly memorable and historic occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik attended a farbrengen marking the 30th anniversary of the Rebbe’s leadership, on the tenth of Shevat.
On the day following this visit, Rabbi Soloveitchik was visited by Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchak Shemtov and was asked to share his impressions and feelings of the farbrengen on the night before. Rabbi Soloveitchik responded with a scene from this week’s Parsha, Ki Sisa:
The Jews had sinned. They has built and worshipped a golden calf, raw idolatry, merely weeks after the greatest divine revelation of all time. Moshe had descended from Mount Sinai, broken the tablets, and then re-ascended the mountain, beseeching G-d on behalf of the nation for forgiveness and absolution. Finally, after eighty days (!) of intense supplication, on what thereafter became the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, G-d forgives the people. Moshe returns with G-d’s “stimulus package,” the second set of tablets.
Now the Torah tells us (Shemos 34:29-33)
It came to pass, Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses' hand when he descended from the mountain. Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while G-d had spoken with him. Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses and behold! The skin of his face had become radiant! And they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the princes of the community returned to him, and then Moses would speak to them... When Moses had finished speaking with them, he placed a covering over his face…
Why is it -- Rabbi Soloveitchik asked -- that only now, after receiving the second tablets, did Moses’ face become illuminant? What ingredient did the second tablets possess that created this glow, and why didn’t the first set of Tablets achieve the same result? Moreover, the first tablets were created by G-d Himself, "the handiwork of G-d and the writing of G-d," whereas the second set of tablets were hewn out by Moses. The holiness of the first tablets was infinitely superior to the sacredness of the second set. Why then did his face begin to glow only while descending the mountain with the second tablets?
The answer he proposed is moving. When Moshe received the first tablets, following forty days and forty nights on the mountain studying the entire Torah from the “mouth” of G-d -- he was a teacher, the greatest teacher of all times, absorbing wisdom from G-d himself, to communicate it to the Jewish people and through them to the world. He was the educator par excellence -- the ultimate source of direction and instruction; he could answer any question and solve any dilemma. He knew it all.
This was his state following the first forty days and nights.
Then Moshe came down, smashed the first Tablets of Stone when he saw the perversion of Israel as they danced around the golden calf. He went back up to the mountain, and spent eighty days and nights on the mountain praying for Israel’s exoneration, beseeching G-d for forgiveness, “fighting” with G-d for his people, protesting G-d’s decision to alienate them. He laid his life on the line for his nation. For eighty days straight, he pleaded, cajoled, and even threatened G-d to excuse the inexcusable; to grant forgiveness to those who might deserve none, to those who merely forty days after a marriage went on to have an “affair.” The prayers of Moshe on that lonely mountain-top elicited our most powerful and dramatic liturgy, our lifeline in when all else fails, known as the 13 attributes of compassion.
During the first forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai, Moshe was a Rosh Yeshiva; during the following eight days he was transformed into a Rebbe. A Rosh Yeshiva is a teacher, an instructor, a transmitter of wisdom and knowledge; a Rebbe is the unconditional lover of all Jews, the person who suspends his entire self for his people, the individual who will quarrel with G-d Himself for his nation. For the Rebbe there is no option, there is no opting out (1). The bond between him and his people transcends logic, transcends decorum, transcends even the laws of the Torah itself. Those laws have been broken, but the connection has not been severed (2).
So now Moshe’s face begins to shine. This is the sort of light reserved not for the great genius of the generation, but rather for the person who gave up everything of himself for the Jewish people. It is the light reserved for the Rebbe of a generation.
Rabbi Soloveitchik concluded:
I knew the Rebbe in Berlin. I knew him as a great Torah scholar, a brilliant man, an extraordinary genius. But now – sitting at the farbrengen in tribute to the 30th anniversary of his leadership – I observed that glow… the glow spread over Moshe’s face when he descended with the second tablets after eight days of complete dedication and commitment, the glow reserved for the human being who sacrifices everything for the Jewish people.
(My thanks to Avi Shlomo for his help in preparing this essay.)
1) “Several of the early Chassidim had a farbrengen sometime between 5544-47 (1784-87) and the core of the discussion was this: The Rebbe (the Alter Rebbe) had accomplished something novel - that we are not alone. At one time, the Master - Rosh Yeshiva or Talmudic sage - was "alone" and his disciples were "alone." The chassidic way instituted by the Rebbe is a tremendous Divine achievement, that the Rebbe is not alone, nor are the chassidim alone.” (Hayom Yom, 22 Iyar).
2) See Likkutei Sichos vol. 21 Tetzvaeh; vol. 34 Vezos Habracha and references noted there.