A person walks into a grand Catholic church, inspired to repent for his waywardness, wanting direction and guidance. He marches up to the confessional booth, sits down, waits for the partition to open slightly and then calls out “forgive me father for I have sinned”. The Priest responds asking him to recount his sins, which he does, he offers a remedy of some Hail Mary’s, and he leaves the church.
Of course I over simplify the relationship that perhaps the Priest has with an individual of his flock, and I target Catholicism in this story not because it is isolated in this method of veiling or placing a wall between clergy and flock, but rather because it is the most known. This relationship built on hierarchy, distance and isolation between clergy and congregant is common across religions – monks sitting on tall mountains only reachable through complex and trying pilgrimages, gurus and seers who are locked away for only the most devout to form a relationship with, and charismatic leaders of mega churches and Hassidic sects that relate to their followers through brief exchanges of gestures, handshakes or the passing around of shirayim (food scraps that have spiritual significance).
Our Parasha, Ki Sisa, ends with the building blocks of this distance. Exodus 34:29-30 discusses the physical changes that Moshe underwent during his second stint on Mount Sinai
וַיְהִי בְּרֶדֶת משֶׁה מֵהַר סִינַי וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיַד משֶׁה בְּרִדְתּוֹ מִן הָהָר וּמשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ
וַיַּרְא אַהֲרֹן וְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת משֶׁה וְהִנֵּה קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו וַיִּירְאוּ מִגֶּשֶׁת אֵלָיו
And it came to pass when Moshe descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moshe’ hand when he descended from the mountain and Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him.
That Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moshe and behold! The skin of his face had become radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.
Originally Moshe thinks this glow is a direct result of his holding the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, he thinks the light is coming from the stone themselves. However he realizes, once he lays the tablets down, that the light is in fact coming from his own body – he had physically transformed, and the people were unable to deal with that change and started to avoid him. Why was this? Rashi explains that because the Jewish people had sinned earlier in the Parasha with the Golden Calf, a direct rejection of the second commandment, not to have any other Gods in the form of idols or graven images as explained in Exodus 30:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10, they were unable to deal with such a high level of spirituality. This is the same people who experienced the voice of God, the sounds and spectacle of the giving of the Torah – but now they couldn’t even deal with some spiritual light. Suddenly the divide between the quintessential Jewish leader, Moshe, and the flock, the Jewish people, was beginning to grow.
But Moshe makes sure to stem this tide almost immediately, and gives a model for future Jewish leaders to emulate, as we see in Exodus 34:33-5
וַיְכַל משֶׁה מִדַּבֵּר אִתָּם וַיִּתֵּן עַל פָּנָיו מַסְוֶה
וּבְבֹא משֶׁה לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ יָסִיר אֶת הַמַּסְוֶה עַד צֵאתוֹ וְיָצָא וְדִבֶּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֵת אֲשֶׁר יְצֻוֶּה
וְרָאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת פְּנֵי משֶׁה כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פְּנֵי משֶׁה וְהֵשִׁיב משֶׁה אֶת הַמַּסְוֶה עַל פָּנָיו עַד בֹּאוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ
When Moshe had finished speaking with them, he placed a covering over his face.
When Moshe would come before the Lord 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.
Then the children of Israel would see Moshe’s face, that the skin of Moshe’s face had become radiant, and [then] Moshe would replace the covering over his face until he would come [again] to speak with Him.
Moshe realizes that for the most part his radiance would be a distraction, but also according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, knew that his radiance was a direct projection of the Torah that he had learnt from God’s mouth on Mount Sinai. So what does he do? He covers his face with a mask, but ensures that when he is either speaking with God or teaching the Torah to Aaron, the Elders or the Jewish people he uncovers his face and lets the true Torah shine.
Our job as Jewish leaders is to realize that we cannot hide behind a mask, we cannot sit behind a veil or a partition, we cannot place ourselves on a tall mountain, or lock ourselves away with our most devout followers – we need to engage the world with all of our might, letting the light of our tradition shine through so that we can inspire Jewish people worldwide to engage the world with their light, as we are commanded to be a shining light on all the nations.