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The Masks We Wear


Kol Nidrei Eve 5781

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. All of us are getting used to wearing masks now, aren’t we? In fact, since we began wearing them back in March, I personally have accumulated a fine selection. Tonight, on Kol Nidrei Eve, as part of our evenings, um, festivities, I present a few of my masks.

The first is the generic surgical mask, very popular still, which I used initially back in March, like everyone else. By the way, I investigated ordering masks for the whole congregation with our logo on them, but back then no one was sure how long we’d need them and it costs money to do that. So we at Beit Simcha chose to stick to providing surgical masks—which is probably the most sanitary choice for a public place in any case.

On a personal level, I soon graduated on the mask front and sought online for versions that reflected something more identity-related than just my desire not to infect anyone inadvertently. I have tested negative for COVID-19, but still, you never know.

When I underwent back surgery in June during some of the worst days of the pandemic, I didn’t need a mask for a while, since I wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, masked congregants brought food to my home, which was an incredible gift organized by Keren Winkleman and supported by so many members of Beit Simcha. Thank you all for that, again; it was an amazing display of true community by our congregation, in the midst of all the Coronavirus tzoris.

After a short time, I was able to work on rehabilitating from surgery in the swimming pool at home. I was tempted, when I came back to lead services in July, to wear this familiar and comfortable mask to shul… but it doesn’t cover the mouth, in any case. Instead, I went online and found masks that looked like they would be appropriate sartorially for a rabbi.

When my first online mask orders arrived from Amazon, my favorite for a time was this Israeli flag mask—fairly comfortable to sing in, and entirely appropriate for an American Zionist, which I proudly am. Next I got this Israeli/American heart mask, ordered online, which is a little bulky but fine for wearing in class or when counseling, if not easy to sing in. My daughter Cece sewed me one, but it was too small to sing in once I opened my big mouth, so I had to put that one aside. Then I tried these clear masks—they are basically a piece of plastic and some string—which took months to arrive from China. Sadly, it turned out you can’t hear anything through them, although they look smashing.

Then one of our outstanding members, Roberta Watson, who lives in Sierra Vista and has known my family since around the time I was born, handmade this very special mask for me and sent it as a surprise. It is very holy indeed; in Hebrew it reads “Dodgers,” my very favorite sports team and, God-willing, one that will break its long streak of playoff and World Series failures with its first world championship since 1988 in this pandemically challenging year of 2020. But Roberta upped even her game, and made me another mask, my very own white mask inscribed “L’Shana Tova,” totally appropriate for the High Holy Days, stylish and comfortable for singing. I remove it for sermons, which seem not to endanger people as much as singing does. This is because talking is far less likely to project virus a long distance into the air, as singing does. Or perhaps it is because people breathe in less air when they sleep through my sermons. Who knows, really?

In any case, my mask challenge for these High Holy Days was solved. But that led to a little thinking about masks in general. I mean, this must be the very first time in all of Jewish history when a rabbi looked out at a congregation of masked congregants… or is it?

If you’ve been to the tourist trap of Tombstone, Arizona, you’ve probably seen the famous Boot Hill Cemetery there, with its colorful inscriptions like, “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les No more." Or “Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1888. He was right, we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he's gone.” Boot Hill in Tombstone includes the graves of the outlaws killed in the Shootout at the OK Corral, and the resting places of a number of other famous criminals, murderers, cheating gamblers and horse-thieves. Very Arizona.

Just around the corner from that famed burial ground, a short walk down the hill, in fact, you can find a Jewish Boot Hill, with quite a number of graves. The inscriptions there are less colorful, and we don’t actually know if the Jews buried here were also outlaws. But given the reputation of Tombstone in the 1880s, I suspect that if they had held a Yom Kippur service there back then, they might have also had a lot of masked men in attendance.

Masks have a long history in Judaism, by the way, and not just for Arizona Territory outlaws. The holiday of Purim, six months from now, has a big tradition of people wearing masks. And masks on Purim—just like at Mardi Gras in New Orleans; I brought one of those masks along—were used to allow people to change their identities. At Purim you could pretend to be Mordechai, or Esther or Haman or—well, anyone other than yourself. Masks can let you pretend to be someone you are not. You cover your face, hide your identity, and Abracadabra, presto change-o, you are somebody else.

Didn’t you ever wonder how a simple mask was adequate disguise for all those superheroes in comic books and blockbuster movies? Didn’t anyone realize that Batman, and especially Robin, looked a whole lot like Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick except for a little bit of fabric over the eyes and some phony bat ears? And since everyone in the entirety of the Old West kept asking about the Lone Ranger, “Who was that masked man?” didn’t anyone put two and two together and guess that Tonto always hung out with the same white guy? The best was Superman; all he had to do was wear black glasses, take them off and no one recognized him. Not even a mask…

But when everyone started wearing these masks, I have to admit that it took a while to get used to how people looked when masked. I have not mistaken my dad for anyone else when he is wearing a mask, but from a little ways away it can be challenging to recognize even familiar faces. Maybe masks really do change our appearance enough to make us unrecognizable. Like on Purim, by far the strongest Jewish tradition centered around masks.

Oddly, Purim, the silliest, happiest, least responsible of all Jewish holidays is connected in Jewish texts with Yom Kippur, the most sacred and serious, and most responsible, of all Jewish holy days. To be technical, the formal and proper name for Yom Kippur is Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements, which sounds like “Yom haK’Purim”, which would mean “The day that is like Purim.”

There are some very interesting midrashim, authored by rabbis as famous and serious as the great Vilna Gaon that say that the reason Yom HaKippurim is called that, formally, in Judaism, instead of just Yom Kippur, is that Purim and Yom Kippur are opposite sides of the same coin. That is, Yom Kippur is devoted solely to the spiritual side of our existence. We don’t eat or drink, we pray, we atone for sins, we seek forgiveness, and then we pray some more; as the Ben Platt song that we sang last week during our 2nd Night Drive-In Celebration put it, “Think about your sins, think about your sins, think about sins, don’t eat anything; Yom Kippur.” Purim, on the flip side of that same coin, is a holiday devoted solely to the physical side of our existence: we eat a lot, drink to excess, we make lots of noise, we celebrate wildly. We need both sides of ourselves to truly seek God, both the physical and the spiritual.

Or, to put it more cynically, as the old joke has it, on Purim Jews put on masks, dress up in colorful costumes, get drunk and pretend to be gentiles. And on Yom Kippur, Jews dress in white, fast and pray all day, and pretend to be Jews. Or, a little less cynically, there is some pretense in all of us, and perhaps never more so than when we take a full day and night to try to fundamentally change who we are. As we seek to do on Yom Kippur.

You know, you can hide a whole lot under a mask, can’t you? It’s genuinely hard to see people’s expressions, to know what they are thinking, under a mask. When someone “masks up” they are definitely hiding something, intentionally or not, even if we are all now doing it for hygienic reasons.

Hiding something can be a good thing at times. How often in public have you found yourself frustrated or even angry during this strange and stultifying last half-year? But if you are wearing a mask, it’s much harder to see the facial clues that show just how irked you are. And when you are delighted with someone or something, it’s also much harder for anyone out there to tell.

I must admit, I have no idea whether my jokes are working in my sermons these days. The small group that is present in shul is of course masked, their responses mostly hidden, and the people who are watching and listening on Facebook Live have to type in a comment that I will only see after services. That’s quite a time lag on a punch line…

I don’t think there is anyone here who actually likes wearing a mask, now is there? We are doing it out of communal and mutual responsibility to one another, to protect each other’s health in the best way we know how to do so right now. We are getting used to it, without embracing it.

But in truth, this isn’t the first time you have worn a mask in your life, now is it? This isn’t the first time in your life when you have hidden your feelings and a bit of your identity, is it?

How many of you have pretended to be someone you are not in the past year? I don’t mean adopted a fake online identity, or stolen someone else’s; although there are people in our congregation who dislike using Facebook so much, and don’t want to disclose any real information, that we have provided a creatively original name and photo for them so they could come to High Holy Day services. It’s apparently both easy and legal to do this.

But I’m not really asking about who you pretend to be online. I’m asking who you pretend to be in real life. What masks have you worn in life? What masks do you wear now?

You see, if we are honest with ourselves—and what’s the point of being here on Yom Kippur if we are not honest with ourselves—don’t we all wear masks from time to time? In fact, don’t we often wear masks of one kind or another? Don’t we all pretend to be someone we aren’t, really?

Maybe it was a mask we wore at our jobs: the ever hard-working, dedicated employee, although we didn’t respect our boss or co-workers. Maybe it was the compassionate supervisor mask, even though we knew our employees were lazy or incompetent or even dishonest. Maybe it was the mask of dutiful volunteer, nodding our way through pointless meetings and useless task-work. Or the mask of the dedicated, grateful professional, thanking volunteers who didn’t do their jobs or caused unnecessary drama.

Maybe it was the mask of the good team player when the coach or music director or advisor was wasting everyone’s time and talent. Or the mask of the loyal subordinate when you knew you would be better at that job than the guy who had it.

How many of you have worn masks in your private life? How many of you—of us—have worn the mask of unjudgmental friend, when we knew very well that the decisions our friends were making were terrible? Or worn the mask of happy friendship when we knew very well that we did not value that friendship as much as our counterpart did? Or the mask of the loving sibling or cousin or relative who cares as much about that disagreeable relative as they seem to care about nudging us?

How many of you have worn the filial mask and pretended to be the obedient, good child to a demanding, even unreasonable parent? How many have worn the maternal or paternal mask, pretending to be the devoted, selfless, happy parent to a demanding, ungrateful child? And how many of us have buried our true feelings from our spouse or partner, hiding behind a mask of cheerfulness or even indifference?

And how many of us have found ways of hiding, of masking our own nature, even from ourselves? How many of us pretend when we look in the mirror, and choose to see only the mask that we wear that make us look better than we really are? And how many of us look in the very mirror that reflects our image and somehow see instead a mask that pretends that we are worse than we are?

Isn’t it clear that we all wore masks with some regularity long before COVID-19?

I’m afraid I’m going to argue with the rabbis who think Yom HaKippurim and Purim are similar because they are, well, opposite. Sometimes when something appears to be the opposite it is, well, the opposite. And here on Yom Kippur, on this particular masked Day of Atonement, we are challenged not only to wear masks to protect others, but to remove the masks—the many masks—that we wear in our own lives.

The masks we wear always, and the masks we wear sometimes, and the masks we only pull out on special occasions. You know. All the masks.

Yom Kippur just isn’t the day to wear those masks. In fact, it’s the one day of the entire year when we are supposed to shed all our masks, to remove the ways we hide our true identity. It is the time, the 24 or 25 hours, when we remove every mask, when we are most nakedly ourselves before God—when we must be so, in truth, before ourselves.

This is the night—and the day—when we remove the masks, explore what lies underneath them, and seek to become the best we can be without masks. Yom Kippur is when we must face ourselves without covering or artifice, without camouflage or make-up, without costume or masquerade. It is when we must be most truly, deeply, honestly ourselves. It is when we seek to harmonize what we are right now with what we wish to be, what we could become.

As we explore our confession and seek our return and repentance this Yom Kippur, may we continue to wear only our hygienic masks, and may we take off all those other masks. And in doing so, tonight and tomorrow, may we find our own inner truths, and our own best selves.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah; may you be sealed, maskless, in the Book of Life for a good year.