Parashat Shemot 5781
by Meir Sendor
The mask has become a symbol of the pandemic we continue to slog through. A bit challenging to breathe through, getting a bit soggy, tugging at the ears, fogging up glasses, some of them questionably effective, it’s a mild discomfort that a responsible person puts up with to try to protect oneself and others from a deadly and debilitating virus. Even though the mask hides our face and makes close communication a little difficult for the time being, it signals our care and respect for others as well as ourselves and is a sign of authentic relationship. This principle of hiding in the name of revealing, distance in the name of close connection, also occurs in our parashah.
When Moshe Rabbenu’s attention is drawn to the burning bush and HaShem calls to him from its midst saying “I am God of your father, God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak and God of Yaakov,” in response “Moshe hid his face, for he feared to look at God (Ex. 3:6).” In the Gemara Berakhot (7a), Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yonatan expounds on this response:
בשכר שלש זכה לשלש: בשכר ויסתר משה פניו – זכה לקלסתר פנים. בשכר כי ירא – זכה לוייראו מגשת אליו, בשכר מהביט – זכה לותמנת ה’ יביט.
In reward for three he merited three. In reward for “and Moshe hid his face” – he merited the shining of his face. In reward for “he feared” – he merited that “they feared to approach him (Ex. 34:30).” In reward for “[he feared] to look” he merited “and the form of God he sees (Num. 12:8).”
Moshe Rabbenu hiding his face so as not to see God in this, his first experience of divine revelation, is regarded as meritorious, an expression of deepest respect and reverence. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yonatan speaks in terms of three rewards, but it should be understood that these rewards are not extrinsic but rather integrally related to his act of respect. By his act of spiritual discipline and self-control, Moshe’s aura, the energy field surrounding all living beings, is enhanced such that its shining is obvious, and a bit intimidating, to everyone. The more spiritually aware, pure and empowered a person is, the more brightly their aura shines (see Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Sha’ar Ruach ha-Kodesh, (Jerusalem, 1983) 5-6). If you happen to know a Tzaddik, and know how to see, you can verify this for yourself. And by virtue of not-looking Moshe merits to become the greatest prophet of all time, having the closest and most direct relationship with God.
But the proof-text for Moshe’s prophetic awareness is a bit perplexing. It comes from HaShem’s own description of Moshe’s supreme level of prophecy: “Mouth to mouth I speak with him, in vision and not in riddles, and the form of God he sees.” But Moshe himself warns Am Yisrael “Guard your souls exceedingly, for you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire.” Rabbi Yehudah ben Barzilai, in his commentary on Sefer Yezirah (Berlin, 1885, p. 14), expounds this verse: “’guard your souls exceedingly’ that you not be liable destruction, that you not think in your souls nor in your heart, heaven forbid, that our Creator has any likeness or image. For if, heaven forbid, you think this at all you are denying the essential principle and causing destruction and making an idol and statue and bowing to it.” Any mental image or idea of God is itself a form of idolatry. And when Moshe asks HaShem to reveal Himself most directly, “show me, please, Your Glory” (Ex. 33:18), HaShem cautions him “you cannot see My Face, for a person cannot see Me and live.” HaShem offers instead to hide Moshe in the cleft of a rock, pass by and “you will see My Back, but My Face shall not be seen.”
The Zohar wrestles with this contradiction and resolves it by distinguishing between the Name of God and God’s Essence. God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton, is the form by which God created the world and by which the creatures of the world can recognize God’s creative and sustaining action. God’s Essence is God, God’s Self, Ein Sof, the Infinite, beyond all Names and forms. The form that Moshe was able to “see” was God’s Name, but Moshe also knew that God, God’s Self transcends all forms, and in his deepest prophetic connections with HaShem, from his first experience to his ultimate experience, he knew how to hide his face and not merely look, but open his heart without looking, to have real and true relationship with God (Zohar 2:42a,b). And HaShem Ein Sof, God the Infinite, also hides His Face to protect Moshe, and to protect us all.
This holds in human relationships as well. True friends and loved ones know each other behind the masks, and even behind the masks of physical appearances. Our deepest connections with each other, in which we really feel the depth of the other, come more from the empathic opening of the heart than from the external look of the eye.
This raging pandemic, which apparently is getting worse before it gets better, is like a marathon. We spent thirty-six years in the Boston area, and in the Boston Marathon, before the end, at mile 20 of the 26.2 mile run, there is a steep hill that goes on for half a mile known as Heartbreak Hill. It’s the bane of many runners who made it that far, who sense they’re near the end, and then find themselves with the most serious challenge of the course. The experienced runners know how to pace themselves to get through this. This seems to be where we are in the pandemic. We will need to maintain patience, maintain discipline, and feel sincere care for each other. Right now, our deepest care and respect for each other is in hiding our face for each other – after all, HaShem also hides His Face for our sakes — and from this may we merit health and safety and a deeper sense of the solidarity of Am Yisrael.