It is an outer garment that you are guaranteed to lose – at least once or twice a week – which is why I have just ordered an entire box of them.
I am referring to the mask.
This past year, all human beings have been living out the great truth that Judaism has always known.
We all wear masks. We have always worn masks.
A great scholar of religion once noticed that the only religion of antiquity that did not require its priests to wear masks seems to have been ancient Judaism.
My response to this: No, the priests did not wear masks when they performed their sacred duties.
That is because the entire Hebrew Bible is the story of people wearing masks. It is the story of people wearing disguises.
- Abraham forces Sarah to masquerade as his sister.
- Jacob masquerades as Esau.
- Leah masquerades as Rachel.
- Tamar masquerades as a prostitute to trick her father in law, Judah, into fulfilling his family responsibility.
- Joseph masquerades as an Egyptian – so much so, that his brothers do not recognize him.
- Moses wears a mask – a veil, really – when he descends from Mount Sinai.
- David masquerades as a lunatic in order to gain entrance into the Philistine camp.
- Esther masquerades as a Persian in order to marry Ahasuerus.
In the Middle Ages, Jews in Spain pretended to be – disguised themselves as – wore the masks of pious Christians, in order to keep living Jewish lives.
Consider: the masked superhero of the comics was the invention of Jewish artists? Bob Kane, who created Batman; Schuster and Siegel, who created Superman; Stan Lee. Any number of students of popular culture have noticed that the masked hero is a metaphor for assimilation; you present yourself as one person, but in reality you are someone else.
Perhaps that is why, almost fifty years ago, my teacher, the late Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, wrote a book about American Jewish identity – The Masks Jews Wear.
It gets even better and even deeper.
The Torah itself wears a mask. I am not only referring to its outer covering. I am referring to the mystical belief – that what we see and read as Torah is only the outer mask of a reality that we cannot know.
God also wears a mask. At the end of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, we learn that a cloud masks the divine presence. What does God tell Moses? “You cannot see My face and live.” Perhaps this means that God, or messengers of God, or intimations of the holy, show up in our lives, and they are all in disguise.
It is not only that we have been wearing masks – as a nation, as a culture – for exactly one year.
We have always worn masks.
I think of all the masks that I wear, putting them on and taking them off, so many times a day that I cannot even keep track. The rabbi, the father, the grandfather, the brother, the friend, the consumer, the citizen. Every time we change our roles, we are changing our masks.
Sometimes our masks conceal who we really are. Consider three comedians.
First, the late Robin Williams. Was there anyone who was funnier than Robin Williams? So we thought.
But, inside, he was suffering beyond measure.
Or, the great Yiddish writer and humorist, Sholem Aleichem. When he died, in 1916, one hundred thousand people lined the streets. It was the biggest funeral that New York has ever seen.
If you go to his grave, in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, this is what you will find on his gravestone.
Excuse me mister, what’s your rush?
You’re needed, sir, my dear.
Sholem Aleichem, I’m sure you know,
Is buried over here.
He scoffed at all of life,
And laughed at all the rest.
His readers chuckled oh, so much
And he? So much distress!
And precisely when the public laughed, and clapped in revelry,
He cried— as only God knows,
In secret, no one should see.
Or, the greatest Jewish comedian of our time – Sascha Baron Cohen.
Recently, he said that he would no longer be appearing as Borat or Bruno or his other fake selves – not only because his life was threatened, but because he came to realize that such acts were manipulative. Sascha is the greatest Jewish actor alive today, and also one of the most eloquent spokespeople for Judaism and Jewish interests – not only in Hollywood, but in the word. The face of the clown that he wears is simply that – a mask.
But, finally, as we learned this past year. You cannot forget your mask. You cannot forget to put on your mask. You cannot forget that you are wearing a mask.
The singer-songwriter Peter Yarrow, once upon a time one third of Peter Paul and Mary, sings these words:
Take off your mask
There are people outside looking
Take off your mask
You can find what you seek
Take off your mask and sit down at our table
Sit down and share with us what we have to eat.
What do you see now that you’re naked?
What was it you hid in the depths of your fear?
Look at yourself in the mirror beside you
Your face shines in wonder with the spell that you’re under
Your tears tell the story, they cleanse you of worry
I am your brother, your friend…
Oh, for the day when we can finally take off our masks. That day will not come soon, I think. It is entirely possible that the mask is with us to stay. There will come a time – perhaps it is already upon us – when we will not even notice the mask that the other person is wearing.
Perhaps there will come a time when we see the mask as an extension of the face itself.
But, during this past year of masks, it has not been too much to imagine those moments when we see the Other, and we say: I am your brother, your friend. I am your sister, your friend.
And to say to that person, as we now say to each other, as a sacred word of farewell in our small and large masked encounters:
Stay safe. Stay healthy.
For as long as it lasts, stay safe. Stay healthy.