By Rabbi Ian Shaffer

When I lived in Israel in the early 80’s I was driving my wife to her office one day and got caught in a traffic jam outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Instead of ‘cursing’ the traffic, I found a parking space and pulled over. I said to my wife: ‘You know, here we are complaining about the traffic in Jerusalem. My grandfather would have given his ‘right arm’ to be in this traffic jam! Look where we are- outside our holy city and facing the Temple mount’. I think my wife thought I had gone a little crazy, but this was a special moment for me, never to take being in Jerusalem, even in a traffic jam, as an ordinary moment – This is Jerusalem!

In this week’s parsha we have a similar idea being seen in the strange detail of the veil that Moshe wore when he came down the mountain. The pasuk says (Shmot 34:33-35):

33 And when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. 34 But when Moses went in before the LORD that He might speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and he came out; and spoke unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. 35 And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face sent forth beams; and Moses put the veil back upon his face, until he went in to speak with Him. {S}

Rashi explains that since the people were afraid of Moshe as his face now ‘glowed’, he put a veil over his face to avoid scaring the people.

The sefer Bina Le’itim (Rabbi Azariah Pigo (1579-1647) Venice, Italy) asks the obvious question. If the veil was to avoid fear of Moshe, then why did he put in on when he finished with the people (as seen above, v.35) and not when he was conveying to them the word of God (when he took the veil off). Surely the opposite would have been better, to wear the veil when addressing them (so as not to scare them) and then remove it afterwards when he would go about his usual everyday activity in the camp.

The Bina Le’itim answers with a wonderful insight. He says that Moshe addressing the people had to be an incredible experience. If it happened on a regular basis, then the danger would be that it would become ‘wochedig’ i.e. not special, due to familiarity. In order to avoid such a situation, Moshe put on the veil when he went about his everyday business in the camp, so that whenever they saw him they would not see his shining countenance. This was reserved for the special occasions  when  he addressed the nation and only then would his face be fully revealed so that the awe of the occasion would never become diminished. Familiarity was not allowed to take hold so that ‘contempt’ (i.e taking this event for granted) would never be possible on such a special occasion.

The Chasid Yavetz  (on Pirkei Avot) argues that this idea can also explain the sin of the Golden Calf. It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that the nation was prepared to swap Moshe for a piece of gold , to lead them  when Moshe did not come back to the camp. How could this remotely have been in their minds? The answer is that they saw Moshe in the camp on a constant basis (he only removes his tent away from the camp AFTER the golden calf episode) and their familiarity with him led to a ‘contempt’ of not respecting him for the holy man that he really was. This ‘familiarity’ caused them to even consider replacing him with an image of gold, which was seen to be an ‘even swap’ as the calf image was something they saw in Egypt and they believed it could replace Moshe when necessary. Again, ‘familiarity’ did lead to ‘contempt’, and the sin of the golden calf reflects the outcome of this negative circumstance.

From both instances of the veil and the golden calf, we can see a great lesson for our spiritual lives. We should always see the interaction with the Divine as something which is special , be it in the Torah lesson or in the time we spend in the Bet Knesset or even at the Shabbat table at home. This is especially so when we are fortunate enough to be in Israel, never to take anything for granted, especially in the holiness of the place and our interaction with the Holy Land. May we merit to have  this level of connection to our Jewish lives at all times and never ever become complacent.

Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Isaac Bernstein zal in London in 1992 – originally posted on YUTorah.

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