What is the real power of Torah she’beal peh?


The best-known theme in our parasha, Ki Tisa, is the Chet HaEgel (the Sin of the Golden Calf), the most grievous sin in our nation’s storied history. In addition, our sidrah contains the powerful narratives of Hashem’s forgiveness for this heinous offense, and Moshe’s second journey to the crest of Har Sinai with the second set of tablets in hand, upon which Hashem inscribed “the words that were on the first luchot … the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments.” (Shemot 34:1 and 28)

While the words that were on the first luchot and the second luchot were the same, their origin was significantly different. Whereas in the first instance the Torah states, “now the tablets were Hashem’s work” (32:16), regarding the second luchot we find, “hew for yourself [Moshe] two stone tablets like the first ones” (34:1).

Moreover, a singular difference obtains between Moshe of the first luchot and Moshe of the second, for it is only in the latter case that the Torah relates his miraculous transformation: “And it came to pass when Moshe descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moshe’s hand when he descended from the mountain, and Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant (ki karan or panuv) while He had spoken with him. And Aharon and all b’nai Yisrael saw Moshe and behold! the skin of his face had become radiant, and they were afraid to come near him” (34:29-30).

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that “Moshe’s face began to radiate light because he spoke frequently with G-d.” As even a cursory reading of the Torah suggests, however, Moshe Rabbeinu had engaged in many ongoing and intense personal encounters with Hashem prior to receiving the second set of luchot. This is perhaps why the Rav asked: “Why did Moshe develop this quality [of radiating light] on Yom Kippur [per the second set of luchot] rather than on Shavuot [per the first set of luchot], when G-d spoke to him?”

In my estimation, the Rav’s response is nothing less than an intellectual tour de force: “The answer lies in the difference between the Oral Law [Torah she’beal peh] and the written law [Torah she’bichtav]. In receiving the Law, Moshe was a worthy messenger uniquely qualified for this purpose. However, his personality was not yet intertwined with the Torah.

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The quality of radiance implies that Moshe absorbed the Torah into the essence of his personality — that he now personified the Torah and, in effect, had been transformed into a living sefer Torah. This happened only on Yom Kippur when he received the Oral Torah.”

The Rav’s answer is based upon his analysis that, “in the same way that Parashat Yitro describes the giving of the Written Law to Moshe [first luchot, Shavuot], Parashat Ki Tisa describes the giving of the Torah she’beal peh [second luchot, Yom Kippur].”

The Rav derives this concept from the verse that appears in our parasha two pasukim before we are told of Moshe’s radiant face: “Hashem said to Moshe: ‘Inscribe these words for yourself, for according to these words [that is, Torah she’beal peh] I have formed a covenant with you and with Israel’.” (34:27) As such, the Rav maintains that Moshe Rabbeinu became a “living sefer Torah … only on Yom Kippur when he received the Oral Torah.”

It is crucial to note that this pasuk also states, “for according to these words I have formed a covenant with you [Moshe] and with Israel.” Though only Moshe was transformed to the point that he literally radiated the light of the Torah, the Jewish people were also changed for evermore when Hashem gave us the second set of luchot — the Torah she’beal peh — for this is the source of our everlasting covenant with Him.

As the Rav asserts: “Only through the Oral Law could G-d make a lasting covenant with the Israelites. The Talmud in Tractate Gittin [60b] states, ‘G-d made a covenant with the Jewish people exclusively around the Oral Law’.”

These ideas are given voice in the celebrated phrase of our morning tefilah: “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu u’mah nayim goraleinu u’mah yafah yerushateinu! (We are overjoyed in the goodliness of our portion! And how pleasing is our fate! And how desirous is our inheritance!).”

May our eternal covenant with the Almighty, created through the unique power of the Torah she’beal peh, bring us ever closer to Him. V’chane yihi ratzon.