Moses' Mask Mandate?
This week’s Torah portion contains such an embarrassment of riches: Tablets from Sinai! The Sin of the Golden Calf! Breaking those tablets, and - ultimately - receiving a Second Set! The tribe of Levi is distinguished! A law code is given to the Israelites including Shabbat and Kashrut! A Half Shekel is a required annual payment in Atonement! Oh, and lest we forget, the actual manifestation of God’s presence as Moses shelters in a cleft of the rock! Amidst all these capitalized terms and exclamation points, it might be easy to overlook a few verses at the end of the portion that speak quietly and mysteriously, without shouting or gesticulation, about Moses’ life in the aftermath of these momentous events (Ex 34: 29 - 35).
When he came down from the mountain carrying the two tablets of the testimony, Moses did not know that the skin of his face was changed. (Karan ‘Or Panav). The verb “karan” is related to the word (keren) that means both “ray of light” and “animal horn.” It may be, as most commentaries translate, that his face “shone” or “glowed” or “radiated.” Or it may mean that being so near to God’s powerful radiation caused the skin of his face to resemble horn: tough, mottled, burled, cracked, disfigured - imagine Worf the Klingon from the Star Trek franchise. Whatever it looked like, it so frightened those who saw him that he covered his face with a veil (or mask or gaiter - “masveh”).
If the text of the Torah is to be trusted (and why would it not?), whenever Moses would go to talk to God, he would remove the veil, and when he would relay God’s words to the people he would keep it off, but then he would replace it on his face until the next time. So many classical, medieval and modern commentaries talk about the wisdom or light “shining” from Moses as he “taught Torah” to the people, but you would be hard pressed to find anybody
asking how long
this condition persisted. After all, we have worn masks in the presence of others for less than two years now, and some people are so sick of it that they beat up flight attendants, vote successful governors out of office and blockade cities with truck convoys to express their frustration at having to wear a bit of cloth affixed by elastic earloops!
Moses’ face, as well as the covering, is never mentioned again. It seems likely that this masking burdened Moshe for the rest of his natural life, the entire forty years of wandering in the desert, a period encompassing almost the entirety of his career as leader of the nation. Perhaps he was made of stronger stuff than most of us and never complained. But can it be that nobody - in all the rebellions he weathered - EVER mentioned the veil, his aloofness from the people, his disfigured or strangely glowing face, none of it? We know the rest of the Israelites had plenty of personal prejudices and character flaws (Miriam’s snow-white leprosy as a response to her complaint about Moses’ “Cushite” wife), but there is no further mention of Moses’ face or mask, none at all.
What can we learn from this mysterious disappearing veil? In a different millennium, Christians learn to picture Moses as the archetypal Jew and search for horns under our kippot (This has happened to me.) Or perhaps we might have preferred, as Muslims do, to not even permit imagining our holy prophet as anything other than his name and be willing to kill anyone who tries to assign physical form, effectively removing him from the annals of history to the infinite and unknowable realm of the sacred. Perhaps we can learn that the greatest leader of all time was able to succeed despite his “disabilities” or “limitations,” or maybe (as they claim about Napoleon) BECAUSE of them. Ultimately, whatever route we take in pursuing this invisible realm of Torah, we should not overlook the very real aspects of Moses that come through the Biblical texts with crystal clarity: his wisdom, relationships, expertise and character (humility) shine the brightest in telling us what was the “secret sauce” that brought Moshe not only through the harrowing and consequential events in Ki Tissa, but to assure his place in the memory of the Jewish People and of all the world!
Maybe we can strive to allow those qualities to rise to the surface of our lives as well!