My friend had somehow convinced me to get my makeup done. “It brings out your features so stunningly,” she continued, as we
exited the Barney’s cosmetics department. “Don’t you see how people are looking at you? You’re gorgeous!”
“I feel like I’m wearing a mask,” I retorted.
She shrugged with resignation. “You’re ridiculous,” she said.
I do realize that my tendency toward diminishing rather than accentuating my appearance diverges from the mainstream, particularly in Los Angeles, a city consumed with “looking good.” I’ve become something of a renegade in my propensity toward subtlety rather than flash. The notion of attending to my superficial appearance feels dangerously hypocritical: a submission to the insatiable ego, rather than an allegiance with the soul.
I have seen the pain caused by worshipping material: people’s futile attempts to hide feelings of fear, disconnection and inadequacy behind sexy outfits, fancy cars, strong drinks and flashy jewelry.
What good has come from it? The brighter their stuff shines, the more they dread exposure of the shadows hiding behind it. They grow increasingly isolated from one another — terrified that their shortcomings will be revealed if not for their shiny, glamorous armor. Lost in the abyss of separation, they disconnect from God — for the Divine is the Light of Unity, whose brilliance is eclipsed by the lesser glow of gold.
This is the story of the golden calf created from the Israelites’ jewelry in Ki Tisa.
Moses had become the physical representative of God in whom they placed their faith; with his lingering absence on Mount Sinai, they assumed that the Divine presence they could not see was gone as well.
To placate their fears, they fashioned an idol — a visible, material symbol of power — to worship. While today we would likely pool our resources for a golden Rolls convertible to venerate rather than a statue of a bull, the fact remains: idolatry is the ego — based allegiance to material value in the stead of loyalty to the intangible One.
Idolatry is inspired by a belief that fear, insecurity and disconnect are alleviated by attachments to tangible, perceptible objects, which ironically intensifies experiences of separation in a vicious cycle. When we empower any thing to be greater than Everything, we sell our souls to that substance. In the Israelites’ case, the repercussions were drastically immediate: 3,000 people killed for loyalty to gold over God.
So why should I wear more makeup? My muted appearance makes the unintimidating statement that the beauty of the spirit is far more valuable than external attractiveness.
As the parsha continues, my boycott against lip-gloss becomes questionable, and my ego literally becomes involved: in Ki Tisa, my name appears. The passage uses the word Keren three times, describing the radiating light of God’s physical presence shining from Moses’ face upon his second descent from the mountain (its root, k-r-n, also translates as “animal horn,” an ancient emblem of military power, but I’d rather be light). Moses had not realized that the “skin of his face shown” when he spoke to the people, until he saw that they “were afraid to come near him”; his light was too great. So he covered his glow with a veil/mask, which he maintained thereafter when he was among them. This got me to thinking: If the most egoless of biblical prophets needed to put on his face before going out into public, who was I to deny the benefits of a little powder … maybe even some eyeliner.
The portion reminded me that half the gift of being on earth is our human experience.
We are not meant to concentrate solely on the Light of the Divine; in fact, if we did, we would “surely die.” God gave us the pleasure of our separateness and our senses in order to apprehend the beauty glowing within all things … so long as we value them in appropriate proportion. God understood that Her greatness was too much for us to take in, but requested that we acknowledge it as the source for the manifold manifestations of His light.
Only in our capacity to maintain blind faith did God underestimate us; we seem to have an urgent need for seeing to maintain our believing. The brilliance of Moses’ face became the visible, tangible affirmation of Divine presence that the Israelites sought to generate with their golden calf (even according to its other translation, Moses’ horns would certainly be more awesome than a little bull’s); they had simply misplaced their faith on the object rather than its Source.
In the parsha’s conclusion, God instructs them to behave as they had in the beginning: donating their precious gold toward the creation of a physical object. But rather than a molten idol, they build the tabernacle to house the Divine presence, with their contributions invited only if their “hearts moved them”; their free will inspired their creation, rather than the creation overpowering their will.
To beautify, adorn and celebrate the physical proves to be a sacred act — with the right intention. So long as we understand that our flashy exteriors are the way in which we humbly diminish our own glory in reverence of a Light too great too look upon, we can draw closer to one another in admiration and inspiration of each individual’s beautiful expression.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, [but rather] that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
May it be God’s will that we shadow our light rather than lighten our shadows; with a little mascara, I am now prepared to accept the compliment I would give to Moses: “You look beautiful, Karen.”
Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She will be teaching several classes for the University of Judaism’s adult studies department during the spring semester, including a workshop on the mind, body and spirit of Pesach on March 29. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.