Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Ki Tisa: “The Masked Man”

As a person who likes to see the connections between the Jewish calendar of holiday celebrations and the weekly Torah reading, I have long been perplexed by the proximity of Purim to this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35).

We generally read Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) soon after concluding the celebration of the holiday of Purim. I have always been struck by the contrast between the frivolity of Purim and the somber themes of this parsha.

After all, Purim is a day of “merry-making and feasting…a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another” (Esther 9:19). Our Rabbis have even declared it obligatory to become somewhat inebriated on this day. Behavior which would not be tolerated all year long is encouraged on Purim.

But Parshat Ki Tisa projects quite a different mood.

It begins with the strict annual obligation, incumbent upon rich and poor, to donate a half-shekel for the maintenance of the Temple and its ceremonies.

It proceeds to underscore the centrality of Sabbath observance in our religion: “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.” Harsh punishment is threatened for those who break this covenant: “…Whoever does work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” (Exodus 32:15-16).

The major events of the parsha are even more troubling: The people sin, they worship the Golden Calf and dance around it. Moses beholds this shameful scene and becomes enraged. He hurls the tablets from his hands, shattering them. He directs the Levites to gird their swords and “slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” (Exodus 33:27)

No wonder I have felt frustrated in my attempts to discover a linkage between the fearsome content of our parsha and the levity and laxity which we enjoyed on Purim, just days ago.

This year, under the influence of Purim and an overflowing cup of wine, I uncovered such a linkage, and it is a profoundly meaningful one. It has to do with the masks we wear, the façades we maintain, and the role of the imposter in our midst.

A common component of the Purim experience, especially for children, is the masquerade. Visit a Jewish neighborhood, anywhere, and you will see throngs of young people dressed up as Mordechai or Haman, Vashti or Queen Esther. Adults dress up in preposterous disguises, and even the most subdued among us puts on a face mask or at least wears a garish tie.

The goal of the day is to re-enact the historical Purim. “On the very day in which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.” (Esther 9:1). We masquerade, pretending to be the opposites of who we really are.

Ironically, however, most of us pretend to be the “opposites of whom we really are” not just on Purim, but all year long. We hide our real selves from those around us; we wear masks and disguises. We may reveal our real faces for those close to us, but when we are “out there”, in public, we play the roles that we think society expects of us. We deceitfully present a façade to the world; an image which we hope will bring us admiration, approval, and material success.

To some extent we are all imposters. Inauthenticity has been identified by social scientists as the malaise of postmodern man. I recently came across a poem which makes this point so well:

“Oh God of such truth as sweeps away all lies,/ of such grace as shrivels all excuses,/ come now to find us/for we have lost ourselves/in a shuffle of disguises/and the rattle of empty words.” (Ted Loder, My Heart in My Mouth)

For many of us the masquerades of Purim are worn all year.

We are now prepared to discern the link to Purim in this week’s parsha. Did you know that, of all people, Moses himself wore a mask? He did not wear it at all times, and certainly not for all of his life.

When he descended from Sinai with a second set of tablets, the first tablets having been smashed by his own action, we read: “…As Moses came down from the mountain…he was unaware that the skin of his face was radiant… Aaron and all the Israelites… shrank from coming near him. But Moses called to them… and he instructed them concerning all that the Lord had imparted to him on Mount Sinai. And when Moses finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.” (Exodus 34:19-33)

Read the rest of the story near the very end of the parsha, and you will discover that Moses did not wear the mask when he was in direct contact with the people: Speaking to them, advising them, teaching them. He also did not wear it when he was in dialogue with the Almighty. At all other times he had the mask, or veil, at the ready.

Moses knew that masks may be worn, but only with great discretion. In moments of communion with the Master of the Universe one must shed one’s mask, hiding nothing. Absolute authenticity is demanded when one attempts to reach or teach another person. Then there can be no facades, no disguises, and no masks. In Moses’ case, his veil was worn for one purpose only: to assure that others would not shrink from his presence, to guarantee that others would not avoid him because of his frightening radiance.

Moses knew when to assert himself publicly with the full radiance of his personality, and when to withdraw in solitude and in modesty. This is illustrated in the following homiletic comment by the great Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Rabbi of Lublin in the immediate pre-Holocaust years, and the founder of its famed yeshiva.

Earlier in the parsha we read of the mysterious encounter between Moses and the Almighty: “And the Lord said, ‘See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand…”. (Exodus 33:21-22)

Rabbi Shapiro pointed out that all leaders confront this dilemma: When should I publicly and courageously assert myself with my entire being, and when should I retreat to my own space, in humility. The answer, he suggested, lies in the aforementioned verse: When you are in “a place near Me”, when the issue is one which involves promulgating My Divine will, then “Station yourself on the rock”. Then there can be no masks, no withholding of your personal talents and radiance. But, “as My presence passes by”, when the issues are neither sublime not spiritual, your place is “in a cleft in the rock”, in privacy, modesty, and occasional isolation.

When we are doing the Lord’s work we must shed our masks and assert ourselves in full authenticity, holding nothing back. But then there are circumstances when the Lord’s honor is not at all at stake. In such mundane moments solitude and humility are warranted. At such moments one may resort to veils, masks, and disguises.

We must limit our use of facades to the one day a year festival of Purim. But if our encounters with others and with the Almighty are to be meaningful, we must shed our masks, and act with courageous authenticity.