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Behind the Mask

By: Rav Michael Susman

This shiur is dedicated in memory of my beloved mother in law, Fruma Gittel Bat Moshe Ber (Florence Lappin) A”H who passed away last week on Yud Adar 5781. May her memory be a blessing.

Many years ago, I dedicated a shiur (click here to read the shiur) to the final passukim of this week’s Parsha. These passukim describe how Moshe Rabbenu descended from Har Sinai with the second set of Luchot.  Unbeknownst to him, during these final forty days on Har Sinai his face began to shine brightly and when Aharon and the Elders saw him they drew back in fear and awe. The Torah then tells us that as a result Moshe would cover his face with a mask which he would only remove when speaking with Hashem or when transmitting Hashem’s words to Am Yisrael. As we enter the second year of the global Covid 19 pandemic, when mask wearing has become so ubiquitous in our lives, a second look at this parsha seems very appropriate.

In my previous shiur on this topic we focussed on the nature of the mask and why Moshe Rabbenu chose to wear it. In this week’s shiur I would like to focus on the light which emanated from Moshe Rabbenu’s face, and more specifically why did it only appear when Moshe came down with the second set of Luchot? Would we not have expected this phenomena to already present itself when Moshe descended after the first forty days with the first set of Luchot? What was special about the second Luchot that caused Moshe’s face to shine?

The Baal HaTurim (34:29) offers two explanations. The first explanation is that during Moshe’s final sojourn on Har Sinai he asked to witness God's glory - “Horeini nah et kvodecha” (33:18). This request was denied due to it’s infeasibility - “Ki lo yirani hadam vachai” (33:20), no man can see God and survive.  Instead, Hashem has Moshe stand in an alcove and He then shields Moshe with His hand as He passes by (33:21-23). The glow on Moshe’s face, suggests the Baal HaTurim, is a lasting remnant of this almost physical encounter with the Divine. (This explanation seems to be sourced in the Midrash Tanchuma 37, and is also suggested by Chizkuni).

The second explanation that Baal HaTurim suggests is that the second set of Luchot, unlike the first, were not divinely crafted. Instead it was Moshe Rabbenu himself who sculpted them. It was due to this labor that Moshe's face began to glow.

This short (a total of 12 words) passage in the Baal HaTurim is startling. In both explanations the Baal Haturim says that Moshe merited (zacha) to have his face shine. This divine glow is clearly a reward that Moshe has earned. But for what? In the first answer Moshe has done nothing but make a brash and perhaps reckless request. We are forced to explain that the reward is not for anything that Moshe has done, but rather for who he is. As the only individual in human history who was able to come this close to God, his face is stamped with an enduring sign of this never to be again attained level of holiness. But ultimately Moshe receives a reward for what he has accomplished over the course of time, as opposed to anything that he has done during these forty days on Har Sinai.

The second explanation, however, is far more impactful. Here, Moshe’s reward is for the active role he has taken in fashioning the second set of Luchot. A sign of divinity has been stamped on Moshe Rabbenu because he has, in a very real way, become a partner to the Divine. When Moshe ascended Har Sinai immediately after Maamad Har Sinai he was a passive recipient of the Torah that was being given to him. But Moshe smashed that Torah at the base of Har Sinai when he witnessed Chet HaEgel with his own eyes. And rightly so. Perhaps a Torah that was received passively can not be fully understood and therefore not fully accepted, by man.  

But what was the nature of Moshe’s “contribution” to Torah? On the simplest level, his contribution was to sculpt a second set of Luchot to replace the first set that he had broken. Netziv, however, suggests that Moshe’s contribution was much more fundamental. The Torah tells us (34:29) that Moshe did not realize that his face had begun to glow when Hashem spoke with him (B’dabro ito).  In his commentary to the Netziv’s HaEmek Davar, Rav Mordechai Cooperman explains that Netziv is puzzled by the idea that God spoke with him as opposed to speaking to him (Eilav). Speaking “with” Moshe implies that Hashem was discussing the Torah with Moshe, not merely transmitting it. According to Netziv this is a clear reference to Torah Sh’Beal Peh. Referencing several sources from both the Yerushalmi and the Bavli, Netziv reminds us of how Torah Sh’Beal Peh traditionally illuminates the faces of those who study it at the highest levels. From the perspective of Netziv this was the difference between Moshe Rabbenu’s original experience when receiving the Torah and his experience when receiving it for the second time. Originally, Moshe received the Torah without fully mastering the connections between Torah She B’Ktav and Torah Sh’Beal Peh. When creating the second set of Luchot, however, he identified and understood the sources in Torah She B’Ktav for every received tradition of Torah Sh’Beal Peh. It was this previously unrealized aspect of receiving the Torah which triggered the newfound glow on my Moshe’s face.

In his book Darosh Darash Yosef (pp 188-189), Rav Avishai David attributes similar ideas to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. For the Rov, the symbolism of the breaking of the first set of Luchot is that Torah She B’Ktav in and of itself can not be permanent. Only in conjunction with Torah She Sh’Beal Peh does Torah She B’Ktav become everlasting. The integration of these twin aspects of the Torah is reflected in Moshe Rabbenu as well. When Moshe Rabbenu received the first Luchot he was, in the words of the Rov “ a worthy messenger uniquely qualified for this purpose”. However his personality was not yet intertwined with the Torah”. This full absorption of Torah into Moshe’s personality was only achieved after Moshe descended from Har Sinai with the second set of Luchot, after he had mastered Torah Sh’Beal Peh. And it was at this point that his face began to glow, a physical manifestation of this total identification with Torah in all its facets. 

With all this in mind we might now be able to revisit our original understanding of the Baal Haturim’s first answer. The Baal HaTurim had explained that Moshe’s face shone as a result of Hashem’s shielding Moshe with His hand, so that Moshe would not directly see Hashem as He passed. We had suggested that Moshe was being rewarded for who he was. But perhaps Moshe was not being rewarded for who he was, but rather for who he became. At the time of the first Luchot, Bnei Yisrael had just received the Torah and had yet to sin with the Golden Calf. It was easy to be the representative of this nation, and to receive the Torah for them. But that Moshe Rabbenu would never have dreamt of asking to see Hashem’s glory. After Chet HaEgel, the picture was different. Moshe Rabbenu was now thrust into the role of saving Am Yisrael from destruction. He was forced to stand up for them, and he refused to accept anything less than full forgiveness. Just as being active in crafting the second Luchot made Moshe a partner with the Divine and led to his total identification with Torah, being active in advocating for Am Yisrael made him a partner with the Hashem in leading Am Yisrael. It was this Moshe that could imagine apprehending Hashem’s glory, and ultimately merit a lasting sign of his encounter and partnership with Hashem.  

If we accept this approach then it might be fair to ask, why the need for a mask? Shouldn’t internalization of the Torah and Divine leadership be openly displayed, perhaps even flaunted? The answer to this question might lie in Moshe Rabbenu’s personality, in his well documented trait of modesty. When speaking to Hashem and when transmitting Torah it was expected that Moshe would remove his mask, since those were the times that Moshe was not representing himself but was representing God and His Torah. To remove the mask at other times however would be to distract from, and detract from, the message of total identification with Hashem and his Torah. And it is that message that we should aspire to, even now, behind our masks.

Shabbat Shalom


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