Parshat Ki Tisa contains the episode of the golden calf. The Torah refers to the golden calf as (32:4) “Egel Masecha.” The Stone Chumash translates this as “a molten calf”. “Masecha” could be a type of metal, and if so, the “Egel Masecha” would be a metal calf, or more precisely, a calf that had undergone the process of melting, since it was made out of many pieces of gold that needed to be fused together. “Masecha” can also be interpreted as deriving from the word “Masach”, an object used to conceal other objects. This is also the meaning of the “Masecha” we wear on Purim, which covers our faces.
This is not the only appearance of a mask in our Parsha. After Moshe prays and Hashem forgives the Jews for the golden calf, Moshe is called upon to receive the second set of tablets. When Moshe comes down from the mountain, the Torah describes how Moshe’s face glowed as a result of his exposure to an intense Divine manifestation. Moshe resorted to wearing a “Masveh” (34:33) which is a veil or mask.
In two episodes in Ki Tisa Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai to receive luchot from Hashem. In both cases, this act causes the need for a mask of some sort. The mask of the golden calf is one of the greatest mistakes in Jewish history. The mask that Moshe wears after descending with the second luchot is viewed as having a positive purpose. How do we understand the vast difference between these two masks?
Our world is full of masks, hiding our appreciation for God’s role in our lives. The Hebrew word for world “Olam” is related to the word “hidden” (He’elem) because nature is a force that masks God’s handiwork. Political history is another mask that obstructs our appreciation for God’s role in unfolding events. We will celebrate Purim in less than a month. The story of Purim (like the story of the 6 Day War) can be read as a fascinating tale of political (or military) intrigue. But really those events are masking the Prime Cause of it all - Hashem. Idolatry can also be understood as a mask. It hides inconvenient truths, such as reward and punishment, and the need to submit to a Higher Being. This type of mask leads to destruction.
Sometimes a mask hides the truth. But sometimes a mask is needed to allow the truth to come forth. Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that the Masveh was intended to make disputants less afraid to approach Moshe for assistance. Others suggest that Moshe wore the Masveh as a sign of modesty. In effect the Masveh allowed Moshe to express his true self, and not hide in any way.
There’s a difference of opinion as to when exactly Moshe wore the Masveh. Everyone agrees that Moshe did not wear it when he was communicating with Hashem. Everyone also agrees that he did wear the Masveh when he was in the Israelite camp not engaged in teaching Torah. There’s a difference of opinion whether Moshe wore the mask when he was teaching Torah to the people. It would seem based on the pesukim at the end of Ki Tisa that Moshe would not wear the Masveh while he was engaged in teaching Torah. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, however, suggests that Moshe wore the Masveh even while teaching Torah to the people. Rabbi Eiger explains that Moshe wore the Masveh to hide his humility. As teacher and prophet, Moshe had to “hide” this innate quality of humility, for the benefit of his role as leader.
In sum, when a mask is used to hide God’s role in our lives, then it’s a bad mask. When a mask is used to bring out our true selves or to hide some of our innate qualities that can interfere with maximizing our potential, then it’s a good mask. As we think about our options for Purim costumes, let us make sure to avoid bad masks and get comfortable with good masks.