Ki Tissa

“Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out… the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’s face was. Moses would then put back the veil over this face” Exodus 34


When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets in his hands, the people see him and are fearful. Moses doesn’t recognise any inherent changes within himself; nonetheless, he quickly adapts by using a mask over his face to conceal part of himself from the people.

Thus, when speaking with God, Moses is unveiled but when in conversation with the people, he wears a covering. What does this show us about Moses as a leader?

Rashi explains why the people fear Moses and suggests that Moses’s shining face reminds them of their earlier errors with the golden calf. The lofty and altered appearance of Moses is a signal to the Israelites of what they lost through their sin.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) comments that even though Moses wants everyone to see his face when teaching, he recognises the distraction of his radiant physicality. Covering himself with a veil means that the people hear his ideas, thoughts and concepts but are not distracted by Moses’s charisma.

Dr Avivah Gottleib Zornberg warns of the darker side of charisma when a follower idolises their leader, and in this context, Moses’s veil symbolises that he does not want to be turned into another corporeal golden calf.

These verses about Moses’s face are also important historically. The Hebrew words of karan or, a radiant face, are mistranslated literally to mean “horns of light,” resulting in Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses with horns. Since at least the Middle Ages, the translation continues to contribute as one of the antisemitic tropes that Jews have horns.

Leaders encounter recurring dilemmas in choosing how to respond to a crisis or critical moments and Moses’s solution highlights an important leadership lesson in communication. Rather than demanding that the people adapt and get accustomed to his radiant face, Moses covers himself. There are other examples in the Torah when Moses grows frustrated with people’s fears or complaints; yet, here the remedy is easily managed with a cloth.

Moses protects the people he serves by preventing them from embarrassment. In this narrative, Moses as a leader prioritises his message over the self-importance of branding and being visible.


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