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The masks – or veils – we wear

“Virtue has a veil, vice a mask.” – Victor Hugo

For the past two years, masks have been a big part of our lives. In a few weeks, masks will take center stage on Purim. This week, in Parshat Ki Tisa, we read about both veils and masks, and I think Hugo may be correct.

While we generally refer to the “Sin of the Golden Calf,” the Torah (Shemot 32:5) refers to the sin of eigel maseichah,” a molten or mask of a calf. The commentators explain this word as referring to a solid piece of metal forged by heat and shaped. In effect, it’s an attention-grabbing artificial surface, a mask.

At the end of the parsha (Shemot 34:33), Moshe’s face is shining as a result of his Divine encounter. This overwhelms the people, so Moshe takes to wearing a masveh, a veil, when not communicating with God or teaching Torah to the people.

What is the difference between a mask and a veil? Masks conceal, divert, and distract. Veils cover, but they also reveal and inform. 

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the Torah reinforces the prohibition against idolatry. It ends by stating (Shemot 34:17), “Elohei maseicha lo ta’aseh lach – You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.” Why does it need to add another example of idolatry? We get the point already!

While some commentators explain this as a timely allusion to the Jews’ most recent sin, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the 19th century Ishbitzer Rebbe and author of Mei HaShiloach, says elohei maseichah refer to thinking and acting in a way that is hampered by a constricted, unfocused, and impulsive mindframe. Elohei maseichah are not idols or molten images – we know idolatry is forbidden. Instead, it is a call to do our very best to live our lives in a way that is not guided by our worst natures. (Think about that Twilight Zone episode in which the patriarch has his family wear terrifying masks that reflect who they are – and turn their faces into those masks.) It is a difficult call to be our very best selves. No easy task.

Masks are, according to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, the vices that may, at times, cause us to want or do or say things we don’t REALLY need. Masks may be the distractions of social media or being so set in our ways that we can’t appreciate others who may be different. Masks – like vices – are destructive. 

How about veils?

Abarbanel notes that Moshe wore his veil to separate matters of holiness from everyday matters. He had to compartmentalize his life between revealing himself to God and teaching the people, and covering himself up when living an “ordinary” existence. That sounds more like a mask. Rabbi Shlomo Luntschitz, the Kli Yakar, sees the veil differently. Moshe, in his great humility, was embarrassed when people gaped at the radiance of his face. The veil technically covered, but it actually revealed something about Moshe’s virtues and helped him be the great teacher and leader he was.

Each of us strives to be our most authentic selves (without masks). At the same time, our public persona may benefit from the veils which refract our best selves outward. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, each of us can choose what kind of veil we need to wear to most comfortably and effectively be the best that we can be.

In this season of face coverings, let’s be sure to wear those that generate the best version of ourselves so that we can feel good about who we are and present our best “face” to those around us.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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