While Purim has passed, the end of our Parsha shows us that we have not yet finished with the discussion of masks. The Torah tells us (34:29-35) that when Moshe Rabbenu descended from Har Sinai with the second set of Luchot, that his face shone (“karan ohr”). (We will discuss with what later in the shiur). Aharon and the rest of Bnai Yisrael are taken aback by this change and shy away from Moshe. Moshe reassures them, transmits to them what he had received on Har Sinai and when he finishes, covers his face with a “masve”, which we will translate for the moment as a mask (other explanations to follow). The Torah then tells us that from that point onward Moshe would remove this mask when speaking with Hashem, transmit to Bnai Yisrael what he had received and then replace the mask. This is the simple translation of the passukim, though it is recommended that to better follow the rest of this shiur that you review them inside.
Most commentaries explain that a “masve” is some sort of physical covering, though they disagree on precisely what type of covering it was. Rashi, quoting Onkelos, understands it as a face covering with room for the eyes, essentially a mask. Targum Yonatan and the Yerushalmi believe that it was simply a talit that Moshe used to cover his face. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, in an article in the Miluim section of his monumental work, the Torah Shelaima (Ki Tisa, Siman Vav), and upon which much of this shiur is based, points out that if this is true it would not have been at all out of the ordinary that Moshe would cover his face in this fashion, as many people do so for a variety of reasons. One need only think of the minhag we have in shul to cover one’s head with a talit. (In fact, Rav Kasher quotes the Sefer Chasidim which points out that an early minhag was for people to cover their faces after completing an Aliya. The reason given was that a person who had heard the Baal Kriyah was compared to having heard Moshe read, and that they cover their faces as Moshe did after having completed transmitting the message that he had received from Hashem).
A third possibility, also quoted by Rav Kasher, is based on both Midrashic sources as well as commentators such as the Radak. They suggest that a “masve” is a special headscarf, whose purpose is to cut down on the concentration of sunlight filtering onto a person’s face.
While the question of precisely what a “masve” was is an obvious one, a different question is precisely what was the purpose of the “masve”? Our initial reaction is to suggest that the “masve” is protecting Bnai Yisrael from the brightness that is reflected from Moshe’s face. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that the Torah tells us, as quoted above, that Aharon and Bnai Yisrael are frightened by the karnei ohr of Moshe’s face. Rashi rejects this, however, probably because the continuation of the Passukim seems to indicate that Moshe would in fact remove the mask whenever he would transmit Torah to Bnai Yisrael. Instead, Rashi suggests that the purpose of the mask was in fact to preserve the honor of the karnei ohr, by ensuring that they would only be seen by the people at the time when Moshe was teaching them Torah or when Moshe was speaking with Hashem. It follows from this that even Moshe himself kept the karnei ohr covered while pursuing more mundane pursuits.
The Ibn Ezra suggests a different angle on the purpose of the “masve”. According to one explanation (which the Ibn Ezra infact rejects), the karnei ohr were not a permanent feature of Moshe’s face, but rather a function of the Torah that he had received. The ohr would therefore fade at times, based upon whether Moshe had been in direct contact with Hashem. The purpose of the “masve” was to cover Moshe’s face at precisely those junctions when the ohr was fading and Bnai Yisrael might suspect that Moshe was “losing it” or that his stature was diminished. The “masve” in this situation is in fact protecting the honor of Moshe.
The Ralbag suggests an entirely different approach to our issue. (The Ralbag, a late thirteenth/early fourteenth century commentator based in Provence, has experienced a renaissance over the past few years. The edition that I used is from Yeshivat Birkat Moshe’s Maaliyot Press, which thus far covers Breishit and Shemot, as well as Rav Kasher’s comments on the Ralbag.) Rather than understanding the “masve” as being a physical mask, covering Moshe’s face and preventing the karnei ohr from being seen, the Ralbag views the “masve” allegorically. After all the time that Moshe has spent on Har Sinai, in the proximity of Hashem, neither eating nor drinking, Moshe has achieved a unique relationship with Hashem. In fact, Moshe has all but transcended physicality and has approached a purely spiritual and intellectual existence. The problem, of course, is that while he shares this relationship with Hashem, it is totally foreign to Bnai Yisrael. It is therefore necessary for Moshe to “return” to his previous state when communicating the Torah to Am Yisrael. This is in fact a wrenching transition. In order to accomplish it, Moshe must put on a “mask”, i.e. he must separate between himself and Hashem and reestablish a more human relationship with Am Yisrael. According to the Ralbag, Moshe would repeat this transition each time he would transmit another section of the Torah to Am Yisrael, and then revert back to his more spiritual self to fully reconnect with Hashem the next time that Hashem would speak with him. (An interesting parallel to this idea can be found in a footnote to the Kahati on the Mishna in Berachot perek bet, mishna hei. Rav Kahati quotes the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Unterman, zt”l, who uses an idea from Rav Chaim M’Valushin to explain why Rabban Gamliel recited shema on his wedding night, even though he had taught his students that a bridegroom was exempt from the mitzva. The mishna cites Rabban Gamliel as telling his students that he will not allow them to cause the yolk of Hashem to be removed from him for even one moment. Rav Unterman explains that for most people, the act of properly accepting Ohl Malchut Shamayim requires an unusual effort to remove oneself from his normal mindset and focus on accepting Hashem. Therefore, if a person (such as a bridegroom) is focussed on a different mitzva that is distracting him from accepting Ohl Malchut Shamayim, he is exempt. For Rabban Gamliel, however, the default situation was to always live an existence where Kabbalat Ohl Malchut Shamayim was the norm, as natural as breathing the air. Not to say shema would cause him to remove the yolk that was an integral part of his existence. Here, too, Moshe is being asked to sacrifice a natural part of his existence for the sake of Am Yisrael. His is being asked to don a mask.)
The problem with the Ralbag, of course, is that the Passukim (see especially passuk 33) seem to say that Moshe removed his mask when speaking with Bnai Yisrael, while according to the Ralbag, he should be putting it on. Rav Kasher quotes the Akaidat Yitzhak as asking this question, but points out that there is ample basis to read the passuk as having Moshe having placed the mask prior to speaking with Bnai Yisrael (see also the footnotes in the Maaliyot edition of the Ralbag).
The Ralbag’s approach, which was adapted and adopted by many subsequent commentaries, sends a very clear message about our goals and abilities. Every individual has the ability to create a relationship with Hashem that is reminiscent of Moshe’s, or at least Rabban Gamliel. But first we must remove our masks.