In chayei sarah this week, we learn that:
"And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, 'Who is that man walking in the field toward us?' And the servant said, 'That is my master.' So she took her veil and covered herself." (Genesis 24:63-65)
Veils are mentioned so rarely in the Torah that their appearance is worth examining. Chayei Sarah contains the Torah's first mention, which occurs when Rebekah arrives in the Negev and has her first look at Isaac. What is hidden from Isaac is revealed to all the other characters, as well as to the reader. We have already been told of Rebekah's beauty; only Isaac has yet to behold it.
The next mention occurs to explain why Judah is unable to recognize his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who exchanges her widow's garb for a veil and waits for Judah at the roadside. The text says, "When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face" (Genesis 38:15). Throughout this episode, the reader knows that Tamar tricks Judah so that she can conceive an heir for his deceased son.
In the first instance, the veil signifies Rebekah's modesty in preparation for marriage. In the second, it signifies that Tamar is available for hire. So, the veil is a symbol of duality. It hides a face while still making it partially visible; it hides a situation from a participant while allowing the reader to see the whole story; and it signifies both the modesty of a bride and the immodesty of a prostitute.
We find a veil mentioned in only one other place in the Torah. We are told in Exodus 34:29-35 that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai his skin glowed so radiantly the Israelites were unable to look at him. From then on he wore a veil unless he was speaking to God, or of God, to the Israelites.
Veils are both protective and deceptive. They are worn to hide the face and shield the viewer from the power of seeing the true person. Veils, that small scrim, shelter from the power of true holiness of the soul, visible on one’s face.
Throughout our lives we experience moments of holiness. What makes us recognize them is that they seem to be separate from what is everyday. The Torah uses the veil as a device to note such separations in the lives of biblical characters. Moses' closeness to God would certainly be classified as kadosh, "holy." It can also be argued that Tamar's fulfillment of the obligation to provide an heir for her deceased husband is an example of holiness. And Rebekah veils herself before entering into kiddushin, "marriage" that is holy under God, with Isaac. We too use veils, although they are not always visible. We call them masks and wear them to protect ourselves from truly being seen. Very rarely do we reveal our most intimate self- not only from those closest to ourselves, but even to our very soul. Rebekkah veiled her beauty. Physically she removed the layer of clothing, but emotionally, it is always there. Isaac and Rebekkah talk a dance. He never learns how Eliezer found her; she never learns of his father’s betrayal. In fact, the only conversation recorded in the Torah is of their children and we all know how that one turned out- they were certainly not models of putting up a unified parenting front.
Veils are meant to come off. Masks are meant to be removed. Our partners, our closest friends, our adult children are meant to see us with our blemishes and still love who we are. The holiness comes through the revelation; the peeling of our very layers to the core where we are weak and vulnerable and naked. When we open ourselves wide and share our stories with those we trust, God sits between us. The veil that separated us, becomes a sukkat shalom, a chuppah, which protects from above and creates sacred space.
In our world, holy and profane will always exist side by side. Sometimes we see the holiness of the separate, and sometimes we mistake it for the everyday. Rebekah knew that when she met Isaac her life would change; she protects herself from the power of the moment by covering her face with a veil. In our lives, may we find ways to remove our veils, our masks and see each other with clarity. May we find the strength to be honest and reveal our flaws, our insecurities, and our foibles. Life is not meant to be seen through a layer of mesh.