Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
– title of a 1972 Disney film about someone who becomes invisible
It’s easy to gloss over the story at the very end of Parashat Ki Tisa, since the Golden Calf overshadows the entire parashah. In just a few verses, the Torah tells about Moshe starting to wear a masveh, which has been translated as mask, veil, or hood:
Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand. As Moses descended from the mountain, he did not realize that the skin of his face had become luminous when [God] had spoken to him. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was shining with a brilliant light, they were afraid to come close to him. Moses summoned them, and when Aaron and all the community leaders returned to him, Moses spoke to them. After that, all the Israelites approached, and [Moses] gave them instructions regarding all that God had told him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking with them, he placed a hood over his face. Whenever Moses came before God to speak with Him, he would remove the hood until he was ready to leave. He would then go out and speak to the Israelites, [telling them] what he had been commanded. The Israelites would see that the skin of Moses’ face was glowing brilliantly. Moses would then replace the hood over his face until he would [once again] speak with God.<1>
There are many interpretations of the masveh story. I’d like to present one approach, from a little-known article.<2> After appearing in a journal in 1995 it was never reprinted, and it is not currently available on the internet.
The author is Professor David Gelernter of Yale University. While he’s best-known as a visionary computer scientist, he’s interested in the intersection of technology, art, politics, and religion.<3> I first heard of Gelernter in 1996, when he wrote a powerful defense of traditional Judaism as part of a symposium of prominent American rabbis and thinkers.<4> Several years later, he published a fascinating series of articles on visual themes in Judaism.<5> Thinking as an artist, he was able to connect the dots in ways that nobody ever had before. When he expanded the articles into a book, I made sure to buy it.<6> Though Gelernter hasn’t published much more about the Torah, everything I’ve seen of his is original and out of the box.
In his article about Moshe’s masveh, Gelernter points out a theme that runs in the background all throughout the Chumash, namely the concealment of Moshe:
In the very first verse in which we hear of Moses, we learn that he is hidden. “The woman conceived and bore a son; she looked at him and saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months” (Exodus 2:2). In the last verses in which we hear of Moses, we learn that the whereabouts of his grave are hidden: “no man knows the location of his grave to this very day” (Deut. 34:6).
In the second Moses story in Exodus, Moses kills the marauding Egyptian taskmaster, and then “he hid him in the sand” (2:12). . . . The third Moses story introduces the priest of Midian and his daughters. It sounds a concealment note also, to which I will return. . . . The fourth Moses story in Exodus tells of the burning bush. Moses was frightened, and “hid his face” (3:6).
At Sinai, we are told not merely that Moses climbed the mountain and that a cloud covered it (24:15), but explicitly (although we might have inferred it) that “Moses went into the midst of the cloud” (24:18). A natural response is to picture Moses disappearing. [In Parashat Ki Tisa, t]he rebellion of the Golden Calf is triggered not by anything Moses says or does, but by his continued disappearance: “we do not know what has become of him” (32:1). After Moses has dealt with this rebellion brought on by his disappearance, God hides Moses with His own hand from the devastating power of His presence: “I will place you in a cleft of the rock, and cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (33:22). And then (34:4), Moses disappears again onto the summit of Sinai.
These outcroppings of the sub-theme all have to do with real, physical concealment. But metaphoric concealment – concealment in the sense of inscrutability, hiding the truth, hiding from oneself (highly significant in the case of Moses) – is crucial as well. After Moses’ chivalrous rescue of Jethro’s daughters at the well, they describe him to their father as “an Egyptian” (2:19). He was raised in the Egyptian court and must obviously have been Egyptian in dress and speech and manners. I have argued elsewhere<7> that there are reasons to doubt whether Moses ever corrected his future in-laws’ misconception. In any case, the story leaves us with the impression that in Midian, Moses’ identity is at best a blur. Then, before setting out on his mission, he tells his father-in-law that he must return to Egypt to find out whether his brothers there “are still alive” (4:18) – concealing his real purpose. On the way comes the weird encounter of the bloody bridegroom (4:24-26), which centers on Moses’ unaccountable failure to have his son circumcised, culminates in his wife’s near-incomprehensible nightmarish shriek, and revolves ultimately, I have argued, around a fact that Moses has concealed from his wife: merely who he is.
. . .
The Bible has us imagine, in short, a Moses who is hidden on the day he is born, to be buried at last in an unknown place, hiding the Egyptian’s body, hiding his face at the burning bush, hiding his life’s mission from his wife’s family, disappearing into an impenetrable mountain-top cloud, hidden in a cleft as God passes before him. Hiding from himself?<8>
In light of Moshe’s physical and psychological concealment,<9> hiding his face with a masveh makes sense – it’s the culmination of all this hiding. Gelernter elaborates:
The plain sense [of the masveh story] is so unsettling that commentators implicitly reject it. Moses, having come close to God and spent much time near Him, has at last been signed by the divine radiance and transfigured; so he hides beneath a veil for the rest of his life. Except under special and limited circumstances, his face is henceforth hidden. Are we really intended to understand that Moses continues veiled for the rest of his career? I don’t know; but that is what the story says. The more important point, for our purposes, is that this last variation on the deep image is a natural culmination of the [concealment] series.<10>
What is the significance of all this hiding? It may well tie into another story in Ki Tisa. Not long after God is described as speaking with Moshe face to face (33:11), Moshe asks for a vision of God’s glory (33:18). God responds that a mortal (even Moshe) cannot see Him and remain alive (33:20). Nevertheless, He agrees to provide a partial vision. As Gelernter cited above, God tells Moshe, “I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen” (33:22-23, new JPS translation). What Moshe does “see” is the yod-gimmel middot (34:6-7), the thirteen principles of God’s mercy that have become a major part of our prayers on fast days and Yom Kippur. When we read this story, it’s easy to miss that it contradicts itself on whether or not a person can “see” God. Gelernter ties this back into Moshe’s hiding:
Why does the concealment sub-theme exist? We are directed inescapably towards a key question in Exodus; [the scholar J. P.] Fokkelman calls it “the main issue of the book.” Can man see God? The Bible will not be pinned down. Sometimes the answer is yes (“God spoke to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his neighbor” 33:11), and sometimes plainly no (“You shall not see My face, for no man can see me and live” 33:20). . . . We expect God’s personality to be a linear melody, where in fact it is harmony, a superposition of separate elements.
. . .
The ambiguity that is fundamental to God’s character – do we know Him or not? – is transmitted also to Moses. Do we know Moses or not? . . . The Bible means for us to conceive Moses as a well-known and well-loved public figure and as an inscrutable mystery at the same time. . . . The Bible’s conception has a foreground and a background; biblical thinking is harmonic.<11>
In other words, there are two parallel questions. First, can we “see” and know God? That is addressed once in the Chumash, in the foreground of the cleft-of-the-rock story in Ki Tisa. Second, can we know Moshe? That is addressed throughout the Chumash, in the background of multiple stories about him, and culminates in the masveh story in Ki Tisa. Moshe’s constant concealment contains a subtle message. We may think we know Moshe and we may think we know God, but it’s not that simple.
1. Sh’mot 34:29-35. Translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah (Maznaim, 1981). https://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=2&CHAPTER=34
2. David Gelernter, “Who Is the Man Beneath the Veil?” Conservative Judaism 47:3 (Spring 1995), pp. 13-23.
3. Evan R. Goldstein, “The Images Dancing in David Gelernter’s Head,” The Chronicle [of Higher Education] Review, November 29, 2009. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Images-Dancing-in-David/49252/
4. David Gelernter, symposium entry in “What Do American Jews Believe? A Symposium,” Commentary Magazine, August 1996. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/what-do-american-jews-believe/
5. David Gelernter, “Judaism Beyond Words,” Commentary Magazine, May 2002, pp. 31-40. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/judaism-beyond-words/
————, “Judaism Beyond Words: Part 2,” Commentary Magazine, September 2002, pp. 39-45. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/judaism-beyond-words-part-2/
————, “Judaism Beyond Words: Part 3,” Commentary Magazine, November 2002, pp. 31-37. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/judaism-beyond-words-part-3/
————, “Judaism Beyond Words: Part 4,” Commentary Magazine, March 2003, pp. 53-61. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/judaism-beyond-words-part-4/
————, “Judaism Beyond Words: Conclusion,” Commentary Magazine, July-August, 2003, pp. 43-49. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/judaism-beyond-words-conclusion/
6. David Gelernter, Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale University Press, 2009).
7. David Gelernter, “Tsipporah’s Bloodgroom: A Biblical Breaking Point,” Orim: A Jewish Journal at Yale 3:2 (1988), pp. 46-57.
8. Note 2 above (Gelernter’s veil article), pp. 16-17.
9. Some commentators think the masveh was not physical but psychological. For an overview of these opinions, see Rabbi Menachem Kasher, Torah Shlemah, Vol. 22 (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 179-183. In the online version, the essay starts here: www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=51491&st=&pgnum=185
10. Note 2 above (Gelernter’s veil article), pp. 18-19.
11. Note 2 above (Gelernter’s veil article), pp. 19, 20, 22, and 21. I found the source of the Fokkelman quote: J.P. Fokkelman, “Exodus,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Belknap Press, 1987), p. 61.