Let Our Own Light Shine: On Horns and Masks

The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is not easy to find. But a rich reward awaits those who navigate the back alleyways of Rome, enter its main chapel and stand before Michelangelo’s incomparable Moshe. In the heart of the Catholic world, the greatest Jewish prophet and teacher. His arms are cut, his beard is regal, and…

Are those actually horns on Moshe’s head? Yup. Perched on top of Moshe’s virile body are two unmistakable protrusions from his forehead. Why?

In Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, we see the Golden Calf Incident. After the GCI Moshe shatters the first set of tablets. Moshe hangs out with God for 40 days and nights. When he descends with the second tablets it says:

So Moshe came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moshe came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Covenant, lo yada ki karan or panav b’dabro ito — he did not know that the skin of his face was radiant/had become horned for having spoken with God. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moshe’s face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moshe spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the Lord had imparted to him on Mount Sinai. And when Moshe had finished speaking with them, he put a mask over his face. Whenever Moshe went in before the Lord to speak with God, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moshe’s face was. Moshe would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with God. (Exodus 34:29-35)

The word karan is the crux of the matter. Does this refer to horns or shining rays? The Vulgate, clearly chose “horns” to describe the change in Moshe’ face. It is more accurately “emitting light.” These horns incepted the pernicious and stubborn stereotypes of all Jews having horns. Jews are human beings, but our unique ways of dressing and head coverings have helped perpetual the grotesque and hateful nonsense.

I was thinking about this when looking at the end of this quote as well. What do we make of the mask? Moshe needed to cover his face to deal with their inability to deal with his diving glow. This reminds me of Marianne Williamson’s poem Our Deepest Fear. She writes:

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

If we were comfortable with other people shining could we put an end to jealousy and hatred? What would it look like if everyone could remove their masks and let their own light shine?

But until Covid is over- Please do keep your mask on.

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