This week’s parshah contains the story of the Eigel HaZahav, the Golden Calf, one of the saddest events in Jewish History. When Bnei Yisrael built the eigel, the way Hashem dealt with them changed. These exact changes are documented in the pesukim and in Rashi with some of them still being felt today. The parshah ends happily with Moshe coming back down from Har Sinai with the second set of Luchos. And without even knowing it, Moshe brought something else down with him as well.
“וַיְהִי בְּרֶדֶת משֶׁה מֵהַר …וּמשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ” “And it was when Moshe came down from the mountain…and Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him.” (Shemos 34:29) The close association Moshe had shared with Hashem had left his face glowing with a spiritual light, the like of which had never been placed on man before. According to the Chizkuni, Aharon and the rest of the nation thought that he had turned into an angel, and as a result, the pasuk tells us they were afraid of approaching him. The pasuk also tells us that, amazingly, Moshe did even notice that his face was glowing! He was so used to being in that tremendous spiritual element where everything contained that spiritual glow, that he didn’t notice that it had stayed with him beyond the heavens.
So how exactly did this light wind up on Moshe’s face? There are several explanations given. The medrash explains that the first pasuk of Sefer Vayikra spells the word, “ויקרא” with a small aleph at the end. It explains that Hashem took the extra ink that was saved by not writing a big aleph and placed it on Moshe’s face, causing it to glow. Another medrash explains that while writing the Torah, Moshe would clean his pen with his hair and beard. This ink, given to him by Hashem Himself, shown brightly and caused Moshe’s entire face to light up. The Chizkuni gives a third explanation. Earlier in the parshah, Moshe was given the opportunity to “see” Hashem’s “back”. In order to make sure Moshe did not see any more than that, Hashem placed him inside a rock and covered it with his “palm”. The light from Hashem enveloped Moshe so that when he finally came down from Har Sinai, his whole face shown. The exact meaning of this story is very difficult, but one thing is clear, Moshe experienced a level of spirituality that has never been matched.
As we said earlier, the pasuk says that the nation was afraid to approach Moshe, so Moshe placed a mask on his face to hide this glow. There are several explanations as to when Moshe would wear the mask, based on these three pesukim, “ויכל משה מדבר אתם ויתן על פניו מסוה . ובבא משה לפני יהוה לדבר אתו יסיר את המסוה עד צאתו ויצא ודבר אל בני ישראל את אשר יצוה. וראו בני ישראל את פני משה כי קרן עור פני משה והשיב משה את המסוה על פניו עד באו לדבר אתו” “When Moshe had finished speaking with them (Jewish People), he placed a covering over his face. When Moshe would come before Hashem to speak with Him, he would remove the covering until he left; then he would leave and speak to the children of Israel what he would be commanded. The children of Israel would see Moshe’s face, that the skin had become radiant, and Moshe would replace the covering over his face until he would come to speak with Him.” (Shemos 34:33-35).
The general explanation for these pesukim is that Moshe would take his mask off while talking with Hashem and teaching Torah to Bnei Yisrael, and wear it at all other times. Rashi explains that it was not right that people should stand and gawk at this incredible spiritual energy radiating around him, since it would cause it to lose its importance and effect, so he hid it. However, when he would learn and teach Torah, he would take it off. This, explains the Chizkuni, was to fulfill the pasuk, “והיו עיניך רואות את מוריך” And your eyes should see your teacher” (Yeshaya 30:20); when learning Torah, you should see your teacher. Therefore, when Hashem taught him, he took it off so he could see Hashem, and when he taught Bnei Yisrael, he took it off so they could see him.
The Ibn Ezra gives a different explanation. While the medrash infers that this light never wore off, he explains that the light only lasted a little while. When Moshe spoke to Hashem, the light would “recharge” and would shine for another short period. However, if Bnei Yisrael would notice that this light wore off after a while, they might begin to think that Moshe was not as great as they had believed. They may even have stopped listening to his teachings! In order to prevent this, Moshe donned the mask.
Let’s close with a question from the Ohr HaChaim. In Pasuk 35, it says that Bnei Yisrael saw that Moshe’s face was glowing; however the pasuk already states this same idea back in Pasuk 30! Why does the pasuk need to repeat that Bnei Yisrael noticed Moshe’s glowing face? He explains exactly the opposite from the Ibn Ezra. While the Ibn Ezra explained that the light wore off after a while, the Ohr HaChaim explains that the glow never wore off! The pasuk is telling us that Bnei Yisrael were constantly checking Moshe’s face to see if it was still glowing. But Moshe’s face never changed back; as the medrash explains, his very skin had changed into this spiritual light. Additionally, while Moshe made this mask to keep Bnei Yisrael from gazing excessively (for reasons stated earlier), it was not actually forbidden to gaze at his face. In fact, Hashem encouraged Bnei Yisrael to notice Moshe’s face so they could have a better understanding of what His light was so they would desire it and strive to achieve greater levels in order to experience it more clearly.
May we reach this understanding soon, with the building of the Beis Hamikdash and the return of the Shechinah to our midst.
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