KI SISA (Exodus, 30:11-34:35) — “Who WAS That Masked Man?”

It was to be the very first Yom Kippur.   Moses was returning from the summit of Mount Sinai.  He was carrying in his hands two blocks of sapphire. 

This was his second such journey.  Last time Moses came down the mountain carrying stone blocks he was dismayed by what he saw.  He discovered, to his shock, that his People had quickly forgotten the lessons they had learned a short time before.  They had heard G-d say the first two of the Ten Commandments:  “I am your G-d Who took you out of Egypt…” and “You will have no other gods before Me…”  (Exodus, 20:2, 3)  Forty days later, Moses descended the mountain carrying the stone Tablets engraved with those Commandments engraved on them.   He discovered his People dancing around a Golden Calf, singing, “This is your god, Israel, who took you out of Egypt.”  (Ibid, 32:8)  Moses smashed the Tablets; his People weren’t ready for them. 

Now Moses was bringing a new set of Tablets.  G-d had accepted Moses’ prayers for forgiveness for His People.  Every year we commemorate that day as Yom Kippur, a day when G-d is prepared to forgive his People for their shortcomings.


 Yes, Moses was back.  He had returned to his nation… But something was different… it was… his face! 

When Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the two Tablets… Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant when He had spoken to him.  (Ibid, 34:29) 

Exposure to G-d’s sanctity had transformed Moses; his face glowed with holiness.  This created a problem; his people couldn’t deal with it: 

Aaron and all the Children of Israel saw Moses, and behold! The skin of his face had become radiant, and they feared to approach him. (Verse 30) 

For the rest of his life Moses wore a veil over his face.  He only removed it to hear G-d’s Word, and to convey it to the people.  As soon as he finished teaching them, he replaced the veil and kept his face covered until his next prophecy from G-d.


What was the problem?  Had they never seen holiness before?  True, Moses looked different.  He was “spiritually energized.”  But what were they afraid of?  After all, they had stood at Mount Sinai, where “…the appearance of the glory of G-d was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop BEFORE THE EYES OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL (24:17) and they didn’t demonstrate any fear.  Why couldn’t they look at Moses? 

I’d like to suggest an answer. 

Moses led our People out of Egypt.  He had faith in us that we would be devoted to G-d.  He led us through the Red Sea.  He delivered a miraculous well and Manna from Heaven.  He had high hopes for us.  He brought us to Mount Sinai.  He bid us farewell and promised to be back in forty days.  Forty days later, Moses came down the mountain with the Tablets, looking forward to delivering G-d’s precious Torah to G-d’s precious People. 

Then he saw it.  He saw that calf.  He saw us dancing around an idol.  We let him down!  After all Moses did for us, we let him down!  He took those Tablets and dashed them down on the ground.  Those Tablets, along with his hopes for his People, were smashed to pieces.


Now he was back.  He brought us new Tablets.  He had continued to learn G-d’s Torah.  Unlike the rest of the Israelites, he had continued to grow in Torah.  He was once again ready to share it with us. 

…the Children of Israel saw Moses, and behold! The skin of his face had become radiant, and they feared to approach him… 

Do you know why they feared to approach him?  After all he had done for them, and after they had let him down, they couldn’t look him in the face!  They were too ashamed! 

Moses accommodated them.  He didn’t want to “rub it in” that he had grown spiritually while they had shrunken.  Therefore, when they saw him on a daily basis, his spiritual greatness was obscured by a veil. 

It was only when Moses needed to teach them that he insisted that they see his face.  When teaching them Torah, he wanted them to understand what they had lost by worshipping the Golden Calf, and what they could gain through devotion to Torah.


Rashi explains that the reluctance of the Israelites to look at Moses illustrates the devastating power of sin.  The Nation of Israel stood at the base of the mountain and experienced the Divine Presence of G-d.  They saw the lightning.  They heard the voice of G-d.  They didn’t waver.  They were not afraid. 

That was BEFORE.  This was AFTER. 

The nation that withstood the holiness of the Revelation at Sinai was the nation that had experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea.  They had been spiritually uplifted by those events.  They were ready for anything! 

The nation that Moses found at the bottom of the mountain was a post-Golden Calf nation.  It was a group of people who had sullied themselves through idol worship.  They were no longer WORTHY of looking at true holiness. 

We see here not only the negative power of sin.  We also see the positive power of Torah. 

These people were sinners; they forfeited their right to experience holiness first hand when they worshipped an idol.   They were afraid to look at Moses; he was too holy.  Yet, when Moses needed to tell the nation what G-d expected of them, he removed his veil and spoke to them.  Apparently, they were still able to look at him while he was teaching them Torah. 

We find a similar idea in reference to Abraham: 

…G-d appeared to Abram and said to him “…walk before me and perfect yourself.  I will make My covenant with you…” 

Abram threw himself down upon his face, and G-d spoke with him…  (Genesis 17:1-3) 

Rashi observes that Abram fell down out of fear of G-d’s Divine Presence, something that he didn’t do later on in his life.  This event took place BEFORE Abram’s Bris.  Once he circumcised himself, he gained the spiritual strength to receive prophecy without fear. 

Same thing with the Jews at Sinai.  As much as they had lowered themselves by worshipping the Golden Calf, all was not lost.  They still had the Torah.  Torah study and Torah observance enabled them to withstand the concentrated holiness of Moses’ Torah.


Judaism is filled with customs and ceremonies.  It feels good to do a Mitzvah.  But does it change us?  Do we feel holy when we do a Mitzvah?  Do we understand that when we do G-d’s will we elevate ourselves?   Do we recognize that when we violate G-d’s will we bring spiritual devastation upon ourselves and the world around us? 

Some people use their non-observance as a justification for further non-observance.  “Oh I can’t put on Tefillin!  I don’t keep Kosher!”  


“Send my children to a Yeshiva?  There’s no way I could do that!  I don’t observe the Sabbath!” 


There is no justification for non-observance.  But once someone chooses not to observe everything, that shouldn’t be a reason not to observe SOMETHING!! 

What if the Israelites had said, “Sorry, Moses.  We’re sinners.  We worshipped the Golden Calf and are no longer worthy of looking at your face.  We can’t learn Torah.  We’re not worthy.  So we’re not going to bother.” 

Sounds like another religion! 

Moses accomplished as much as he was able to.  We need to accomplish all that we can do.  By hiding behind a mask of non-observance, we are only hiding from ourselves. 

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz 

(A different analysis of Moses’ shining face can be read at “Little Big Man”.)


From the Archives 

“Fool’s Gold” (2010)

“The statistics linking smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and burn marks on furniture are inconclusive.”

“Seat belts are too restrictive. Many people have died because they couldn’t get out of their cars quickly enough.”

“I’m only going to taste one tiny sliver of this Double-Decadent Chocolate Cream Pie…”

“Honest, Mom, It’s only a date… ”

“Marijuana is NOT addictive! It’s not as if it will lead to taking something dangerous …”

“I don’t need to hire a Mohel. I can do it myself. I’ve watched it being done dozens of times…”

Do we really believe the lies we tell ourselves? …

Read more.


 “Who WAS That Masked Man?” (2009)

 It was to be the very first Yom Kippur.   Moses was returning from the summit of Mount Sinai. He was carrying in his hands two blocks of sapphire.

 This was his second such journey. Last time Moses came down the mountain carrying stone blocks he was dismayed by what he saw… He discovered his People dancing around a Golden Calf…Moses smashed the Tablets; his People weren’t ready for them.

Now Moses was bringing a new set of Tablets. G-d had accepted Moses’ prayers for forgiveness for His People. Every year we commemorate that day as Yom Kippur, a day when G-d is prepared to forgive his People for their shortcomings.

 Yes, Moses was back. He had returned to his nation… But something was different… it was… his face!…

 Read more.


“Hot Cash” (2008)

 The Children of Israel sinned.  They sinned egregiously.  They melted their gold and formed it into a statue of a calf.  They danced around that statue, referring to it as their god who had taken them out of Egypt.  This was a terrible sin.  G-d almost wiped out the entire nation as a punishment.

 They needed to atone for their sin…

 Simply put, the Israelites sinned against G-d by melting their gold into an idol.  They atoned for this sin by melting their silver into a Temple for G-d.

 …This is what they must give …a half-shekel… 

 There were certain commandments that Moses didn’t fully understand.  The Half Shekel was one of them.  The Torah says …This is what they must give …a half shekel… The Talmud says that G-d showed Moses a fiery half-shekel coin, and said, “It should be like this.”

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin asked why Moses was so confused.  Why did he need to see what a half-shekel looked like?  Had he never seen such a coin before?  And why did G-d show him a half-shekel of fire?  Wouldn’t a regular silver coin have sufficed to clarify the requirement?

 … Moses knew quite well what a silver coin looked like; that wasn’t his question… 

Read more.


“‘Los ANGELES’ (‘City of ANGELS’) or San Francisco?” (2004)

 .. It is very important to defer to the protocols of the community you visit. Even angels do it for humans, and humans do it for the angels:

 “… He (Abraham) stood by them (three angels who appeared to be men) under the tree, and they ate.” (Genesis, 18:8)

 “… He (Moses) was there (Mt. Sinai/Heaven) with G-d for forty days and forty nights. He ate no bread and drank no water.” (Exodus, 34:28)

 Based upon the above two verses, the Talmud (Bava Metzia, 86b) advises us to respect local custom. Humans require food for sustenance. Angels, who are spiritual beings, do not. Yet, the angels, out of respect for Abraham, honored him by accepting his offer of food, while Moses had to adhere to the angelic way of life by engaging in a forty-day fast…

 We just read that one should follow the customs that are acceptable in the locale in which he finds himself. Does this mean that we should have one set of values in Jerusalem, Monsey and Boro Park, and a different set of values in San Francisco, New Paltz, and Massachusetts?!…

Read more.


“How Do I Count Thee? …” (2003)

 … How did we get caught up in worshiping the Golden Calf? How could we have strayed so far from the Second Commandment …

Read more.


“Cut Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning” (2002)

 G-d was angry… Moses said to the people, “… I will go back up to G-d and try to gain forgiveness for your crime.” …

Sounds pretty easy. Too easy. Is that all it takes to be forgiven for sinning? Did you worship idols and rebel against G-d today? Maybe a little murder and adultery while you’re at it? No Problem! Take two Tablets, say thirteen attributes and a few “Hail Moses-es” and call me in the morning! You’re all set! All is forgiven!… Is that what Judaism is all about?! Do whatever you want, and then say a few verses and then everything is okay?! Sounds like another religion!…

Read more.


“Abs of Steel/Calves of Gold” (2001)

This week, it seems, is the “Week of the Cows.” …The Red Heifer is a Mitzvah that is, in all due respect, totally illogical…

Is there a link between the two colored cows in this week’s Torah Readings? Can we find a connection between the calf of gold and his crimson “mother?” … Is there any logical connection between the sin of bowing down to a calf-shaped molten image, and being sprinkled with a mix containing the ashes of a cow? …

 Read more.


 This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2015 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 6:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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