Hayim Herring

If Moses lived today, would he wear a mask publicly because of COVID-19: A Shavuot reflection?

Yes, Moses would wear a mask because of the COVID-19 pandemic if he were alive today. Why am I so confident? Because he did after he received the Ten Commandments. Moses’ face glowed from his experience of being in God’s presence at Mount Sinai, and the radiance from his face frightened the Israelites. “Moses descended Mount Sinai, holding the two tablets of the testimony (the Ten Commandments). Moses was unaware that the skin of his face was radiant since God had spoken to him. Aaron and all the people saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant, and they shrank from approaching him” (Exodus 34:29-30).

How did Moses restore physical closeness between himself and the people? He covered his face with a mask. “When Moses went… to speak with God, he would leave the mask off…and when he…told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was (and) Moses would put the mask back on his face” (Exodus 34: 34-35).

Moses had a second revelation, this time, without God’s help. He realized that masks conceal our faces but reveal our hearts. In private, “God would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another” (Exodus 33: 11), with no “mask requirement.” But Moses could not lead his people from a distance, so he devised a solution to allow him to be physically near them. He decided to wear a mask publicly. That must have been a forty-year inconvenience as he led the Israelites across a scorching desert from Egypt to Israel. Yet, there is no Biblical record of Moses grumbling about wearing a mask publicly for decades.

We made an unfortunate and profound mistake when we began using the phrase “social distancing” during the pandemic. What we should have said instead is “physical distancing.” The phrase, “physical distancing,” acknowledges the requirement to remain six feet apart without negating our need to be socially and emotionally close. Leaders who make this distinction will better serve the public by using their unique positions of influence to inspire caring behavior.

With COVID-19 in our midst, wearing a mask in a public space communicates, “I am concerned about someone who may be at risk.” A mask is uncomfortable and gets in the way of eating, drinking, and sometimes breathing easily. But it opens a way to be physically present with others who fear contagion. In my state of Minnesota, the governor failed to issue an executive order to wear a mask in public spaces that are too small for people to distance themselves from each other physically. But I’ll take my inspiration from Moshe and proudly follow his lead.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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