The short story about Moshe’s face lighting up at the end of this week’s parsha brings up several issues. One is why this did not happen with the first tablets. Another is what reason he had to cover his face with a veil when he was not teaching the Children of Israel (or with God).
Regarding the first question, it is hard to say that Moshe’s encounter with God was more special the second time than the first, which is why Rabbenu Bachya does not present it as an answer on the peshat level. Instead, he gives two other possibilities. The first is that since the people had not seen this revelation – as they had the first – God wanted to give it more credibility. Bekhor Shor gives two reasons based on the same principle, namely that this was a type of optional gift that God granted Moshe, the Jewish people or both. But Rabbenu Bachya’s second approach works in the opposite direction – that the light was a natural result of such an intense revelation and, so, God had to intervene to prevent Moshe from receiving it the first time. According to Bachya, God did so due to His knowledge of the first tablets’ unfortunate fate.
Perhaps the approach we follow on the first issue determines the way we resolve the second issue as well:
If the light on Moshe’s face was an inevitable result of his high level of prophecy, the many commentators that suggest the light had holiness would seem to be correct. According to this approach, just like the holiness of the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, the Tablets, etc. required them to be hidden from view, so too would Moshe’s face.
On the other hand, if it was a gift that was not the direct outgrowth of contact with the Divine but rather a sign from God about Moshe’s truth or the truth of the Torah, it should theoretically not have been covered from view. Quite the contrary, it would then have been something meant to be on display and thereby build the people’s faith. So if we go with this approach, Moshe’s covering his face becomes more of a question.
Netziv presents an original approach that not only answers the question even according to the latter approach, but also gives us a singular insight into the religious life. Netziv paints Moshe as an unusual combination of public religious leader and insular mystic. When putting on the first hat (so to speak), Moshe would take off his veil. But, says Netziv, when involved in personal growth and meditation – meaning when not involved with the people – he would put it back on. In his words, this was, “so that he could cleave to the divine with his thoughts, and not be confused” by the commotion caused by his light. This creates the paradox that while putting the veil would help him connect with spirituality, when he was actually speaking with God, Moshe would nevertheless remove it.
What comes out of this approach is that Moshe could actually better commune with God when he was not in direct communication with Him! If we think about it, however, this is not surprising. Even when we only experience God in a particularly powerful prayer, it can still be too disorienting for us to truly understand it. For it is the nature of the human connection with God that the problem is not only too little but also too much. Man’s smallness and frailness requires that he relate to God’s greatness in small manageable doses.
While Moshe could certainly handle far greater doses of spirituality than we can, it is refreshing to know that the “not too little, not too much” principle may well have been true for him as well. For here we see Moshe’s thirst for the regular everyday experience of God that he gained from quiet, undisturbed meditation. One might otherwise think that since He had already attained such a high understanding of, and exposure to, God, such exercises would be superfluous. But at least according to Netziv, that is clearly not the case.
What that means for us is that we are best served by taking time out to focus on God – outside of prayer times. Whether it be in meditation, quiet reflection or contemplative study of God and His world, these pursuits are essential for a productive spiritual life.