Moses and the disappearing mask

The Hebrew Bible tells us that after Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Tablets the second time after having earlier found the Hebrews worshipping the Golden Calf, his face shone with glorious radiance – the afterlife of an intimate interaction with God. When he walked among the people, though, he would wear a mask (Exodus 34:33). Why?

To some commentators, the mask would insulate the people from embarrassment – they, too, could have received God’s Grace but, in sin, they forfeited the radiance of God’s glow.

Or maybe, the mask disguised Moses’s own insecurity – he saw himself, too, as a sinner undeserving of a pedestal (of sorts) to distinguished him from the rest of the House of Israel.

Possibly God Himself directed that Moses wear a mask to deny the Hebrews an indirect encounter with the Divine – a contact high, if you will — through the exposed face of Moses.

Perhaps, though, Moses sought to conceal his innermost thoughts about a wayward people  — if studying his face would too easily enable them to discern what Moses was truly thinking.

We, too, of late, have worn masks, albeit to a different end. At first, to protect us from the spread to us of COVID, until we learned that the mask would instead protect others from us.

But did mask wearing impact us in other ways? Did it enable us to disguise our true feelings – shield from others what we thought of them?   Do I conceal my true thinking about those with whom I converse if they can only see my eyes, but not the fulness of my face that discloses my disagreement or disapproval?

When we engage with one another, we don’t always communicate our true reaction to what they say. And so, we sometimes present our reactions disingenuously. Some of us have many faces, but not all. (compare Sting, “The Shape Of My Heart”).

When I affirmatively seek to conceal my thoughts or reactions from those with whom I engage, though, “the mask I wear is one.” (Id.)  A mask, but not a face, may succeed – as perhaps did that of Moses — because of its opaque quality. Possibly the Hebrews would have penetrated what Moses sought to accomplish if he exposed his true thinking employing a “face,” but not a mask.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, with mankind’s effort to conceal, is found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

Now that mask wearing of a different sort happily recedes and access to our many “faces” returns, we need more urgently to consider Hawthorne’s admonition, lest we encounter bewilderment in the inconsistency between what we tell ourselves and what we try to tell others. And lose “truth” in the process.




About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.

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