Moses’ Veil

Last year on Parshat Ki Tisa I was in the hospital with my 2 day old daughter. I know Cantor Black led a conversation about the light emanating from Moses’ head and the veil he had to wear after he approached G-d in the Tent of Meeting. This year I want to give my take on this phenomenon.

We learn at the end of the portion that after Moses went down from Mount Sinai, “when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, the skin of his face sent forth beams, and they were afraid to come near him.”[1] Therefore, whenever Moses appeared before Israel he wore a veil on his face, blocking out the beams of light coming from his face after his encounter with G-d.[2]

As the Torah does not have any vowels or punctuation, there are at times different translations. The Hebrew word קרן (kuf-resh-nun) can be understood two different ways: either karan (beam of light), or keren (horn). This created the misinterpretation of Moses as being horned, unfortunately leading to many people believing that Jews have horns. It is also why the famous Michelangelo’s Moses in Rome depicts Moses as having horns. The problem with Moses having horns is why then would he need to wear a veil, a מסוה? A veil could block out light but one would still be able to see the horns protruding from Moses’ head.

The question I’m more interested in is why did Moses have any physical change in his appearance after his encounter with G-d? We have learned earlier in this portion that we cannot see G-d’s face, “for man may not see G-d and live.”[3] Yet even without seeing G-d’s face, by merely being in G-d’s presence at Sinai, Moses’ appearance is altered. Rabbi Ephraim of Luntshitz wrote in his book Kli Yakar that this was actually a symbol of Moses’ greatness in being able to get closer to G-d than any other person. The veil was only worn for Moses’ modesty because he was embarrassed that he received this great gift of radiant light. Before G-d, however, he had no need to be embarrassed so he was required to remove this veil of modesty.[4]

Naftili Tzvi Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, wrote in his book HaEmek D’var that it was actually a blessing to see Moses’ radiant face. The radiance represents the joy, the warmth and the uplifting nature of Moses’ light as the leader of the people of Israel.[5] The Israelites misunderstood the purpose of the radiance: it was to demonstrate G-d’s presence in the world, rather than to single out or embarrass Moses. Instead of being joyous, Israel became afraid by this supernatural emanation of godliness. As a result, the veil was needed.

How do we reconcile Moses’ humility with the fact that he alone had this close encounter with G-d? Rabbi Akiva Eger attempted to do so in his work Meeinah Shel Torah. He wrote that Moses had to go against his nature in order to lead the Israelites. On one hand Moses was “very humble, moreso than any person on the face of the earth.”[6] On the other hand, he was Israel’s intermediary with G-d. Moses therefore wore the veil when around the Israelites to lead the people. He had to mask his true nature of humility in order to effectively lead the Israelite nation. When it was just him and G-d, however, he removed the veil and once again had a humble appearance.

The lesson we should learn from Moses and the veil should be clear now that we just celebrated Purim. Purim above all else is a holiday of masks, where our heroine Esther’s name means להסתיר, to hide oneself, or to hide one’s true identity. To some degree in each of our lives we wear masks, obfuscating our true natures. When it is just us and G-d, however, the masks come off and our true selves are exposed. So it was with Moses our teacher. Through wearing a veil, Moses hid part of his innermost nature. I imagine the veil was opaque and thus people couldn’t see Moses face, and thus look into his eyes, into the depths of his soul. Moses could hide from Israel but when it was just him and G-d his true nature became exposed.

The same is true for us. Each of us hides part of ourselves in our everyday encounters, perhaps even in our relationships with others at the Jericho Jewish Center. We hold onto some of our cards, as we don’t want to expose our true selves, creating vulnerability. When it comes to our personal relationship with G-d, however, our true natures become revealed. I would ask each of us, when we feel safe to do so, to lower our veils a little bit, not to unmask our deepest, darkest secrets but rather to show that we’re human beings, each with similar needs and desires, and that we should not be ashamed of who we are or what we are feeling at any given moment. I would hope that we will not be afraid of our inner natures and that we will feel safe enough at the Jericho Jewish Center to lower the veil and embrace one another in accordance with our true natures. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may we have the willpower to do so.

[1] Exodus 34:30

[2] Exodus 34:33

[3] Exodus 34:30

[4] Kli Yakar, Exodus 34:33 ד”ה ויתן על פניו מסוה

[5] HaEmek Davar, Exodus 34:35, ד”ה כי קרן עור פני משה

[6] Numbers 12:3

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