In Shemot (2), we find a fascinating passage concerning Moshe’s descent from Sinai. We are informed that Moshe decided to cover his face with a mask after realizing that his facial skin had become radiant, causing people to withdraw and not dare approach him.
What is utterly surprising is that contrary to popular belief, Moshe walked daily throughout the Israelite camp, and had his mask on as long as he was not speaking with the people to transmit God’s words. When he had to speak to them, he deliberately took it off, revealing his luminous face. Instead of accommodating them by making it easier to approach him, he apparently wanted to create for them an altogether different spiritual setting before repeating the words of God as he had heard them. By taking the mask off only when he transmitted the words of God, he exposed the Israelites to this divine radiance, which caught them by complete surprise. The purpose, then, was to catch them off guard.
Human beings can quickly become desensitized to even the most astonishing stimuli once they get used to them. The wonder wears off. For Moshe’s radiance to have an ongoing effect, it had to be hidden so that when he would reveal his face the Israelites would be deeply moved by its luminance. Only under those conditions could they fully appreciate and value God’s words, realizing that every word Moshe spoke in the name of God was authentic. Otherwise, even the words of God would become mediocre and dubious. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Religion is the art of knowing what to do with amazement. To ensure that we do not slip into complacency, our religious practices must never become routine. In fact, this has been one of the greatest challenges of Judaism in the last few hundred years. While in the days of Moshe and the prophets – and for some time afterward – Judaism was experienced with deep religious fervor and as a majestic representation of the new, over the centuries this wonder has been replaced by devastating familiarity. Judaism has put on a permanent mask that is never removed.
Thoroughly misunderstanding what life is all about, and believing that we have solved most problems concerning its mystery, we have become mentally cut off from the possibility of the extraordinary and unprecedented. We have severely weakened our capacity to feel surprise.
With the passing of time, we have turned Judaism into an institution, a dogma, and a ritual into which everything needs to fit neatly. But Judaism is really about an upheaval in the soul and the need to break with all idols. It is about living with spiritual trepidation and realizing that although we were created from dust, we have the ability to reach heaven. Whether or not we succeed will depend on our willingness to stand in awe.
We have turned Judaism into a religion that comforts but does not challenge. We have created a feeble doctrine in which the courage to shatter callousness has been sidetracked. Judaism has been transformed into a sweet and comfortable religion in which man can slumber and never wake up.
Today’s Judaism has paradoxically made modern man believe that divine revelation is impossible. How, after all, can it claim that the Divine can enter our world when it has utterly rejected the notion that surprise is the great spiritual mover for authentic religious life? How can one uphold a belief in the revelation at Sinai when one simultaneously has bought into spiritual stagnancy by thinking that scientific investigation is all there is and wonder is no longer to be part of our experience? Revelation is based on the notion of infrequency. Its authenticity and truth is to be found in its being different from all other experiences. Its uniqueness is that it cannot be compared to any other event. It is sui generis. Once we attempt to explain it, it loses its very essence and purpose. If we extinguish the spark of its singularity, it is reduced to insignificance.
Wonder, however, is problematic for the law. The application of law would be much easier if the world were stagnant and consisted of endless repetition. The difficulty arises when the sudden and unconventional emerge. Such moments take the law by surprise. Definite judgments become irrelevant, since they cannot cope with what is new and unheard of. In such cases, the lawmakers are forced to leave their comfortable ivory towers. Either they admit that the law has nothing to contribute, or they become inventors and show that the law leaves room for the unprecedented and the notion of wonder.
This is the great challenge facing today’s halachic authorities. Are their decisions made in a sterile vacuum in which every surprise is ignored and even suppressed? Or, are they made to stimulate a religious condition in which man will live in great awe, will grow, and will feel Halacha’s inner spirit? Are today’s rulings transformative, or do they promote stagnation? Shall we have prophetic Halacha, or petty Halacha?
What we need is a new approach. We have to re-create Halacha so that it once again becomes the manifestation of holy deeds that generate marvel and amazement in every part of our lives.
It may be time for rabbis to invite religious thinkers who still see the wonder of Judaism and can help them make suitable decisions before genuine religiosity is suffocated.
We need people who can teach us to take off our mask – which by now has merged with our skin – and who can show us the original glow of God’s word, as Moshe did.
(1) Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (NY: Philosophical Library, 1949) pp. 91-93.
(2) Shemot 34:29-34.