By Gila Jedwab, DMD
I am not a rabbi or a doctor. I have a dental degree and some thoughts. My goal in writing is to help find a way towards universal closeness to Hashem.
The question that came to me this morning was this. How can we be a light to the world right now? There is a global, visible opportunity at our fingertips right now. A spotlight on a singular thing. People’s faces. How can we capitalize on this opportunity and turn it towards G-d? There is only one way. By being different.
I am going to touch my finger to the edge of the touchiest topic in the world right now. Masks.
First I want to say that I am not judging anyone who wears one. Everyone is free to make their own smart choices. I, too, wear a mask when I feel it is called for.
I’ve been wearing a mask at work for over 20 years now, way before it came into recent fashion. OSHA mandated masks for dentists sometime back in the 1980s. I agree with the practice. Mostly because I eat 10 small meals a day and at any point I may have food stuck in my teeth.
These are some things I do to make it more comfortable. I change it out a few times a day. I pull it down to breathe fully whenever I have the chance. I take it off completely when I’m sitting at my desk because the itchiness behind my ears drives me crazy.
I want to present some information that I’ve found from researching mask wearing:
- The filtration abilities of masks decline with moisture after about 20 minutes. Disposable masks are recommended to be single-use only. (Australian Dental Association)
- Wearing a mask for a long period of time is not recommended.
- Diminishing your oxygen intake, even slightly, can contribute to anxiety, feelings of nervousness, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
- The outside of your mask collects pollutants both from the ambient air and from your fingers pulling at it.
- The inner surface of your mask soaks in bacteria from your mouth. The mouth has 500 different types of bacteria, all of them mingling and bathing inside your mask. They travel back up your nasal passages and nearby skin, causing acne and rashes or even worse. A patient of mine had to go on steroids to clear up a nasty neck rash caused by the mask she wore at her job.
I’d love to see some masks under a microscope. We are likely inhaling more repurposed germs from wearing a mask than we ever could from breathing fresh air. Which makes me ponder the following: Would you wear the same underwear two days in a row? Would you put on someone else’s used mask? Food for thought.
Fortunately, our bodies were brilliantly designed by the Creator to tolerate and quell the insult of our daily exposures. Our immune system is resilient, hearty, and always on guard. Most people don’t realize that our cells were made to cohabitate with viruses and bacteria. Germs are our friends. They are even called by a beautiful name, the flora of the body.
So much conflicting science about universal mask wearing is rising to the surface, with even Dr. Fauci vacillating from March until May. Check out his video on 60 Minutes where he asserts, “The mask is not providing the perfect protection that people think it is.”
Recently, CNN reported Dr. Fauci stating, “I wear it for the reason that I believe it is effective. It’s not 100 percent effective. I mean, it’s sort of respect for another person, and have that other person respect you. You wear a mask, they wear a mask, you protect each other.” Fauci further states he wears a mask “because I want to make it be a symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.”
Masks, with their questionable hygiene, continue to be hyped as protection. The same mask that is supposed to be helping you could be making you sick, so why has it become the one thing the powers-that-be won’t let go of?
Does the mask have special powers to ward off the angel of death? Does it connote that you are virtuous? Are you responsible for death if you don’t wear it?
Death or disease shaming is a brilliant device of manipulation. It is an abrupt conversation ender. Shame is a silencer. Shame holds its index finger over its pursed lips and makes you hang your head low and meekly submit. If you are human, you can hardly choke out another word after being called a murderer for wanting some fresh air. There is no way to answer the question, “Do you want to end up on a ventilator?”
Being bullied by guilt is the worst feeling. A woman I shared a lobby with recently had a nuclear meltdown because my mask fell below my nose. She acted hysterically, like I was casually waving a loaded gun in her direction.
I understood that too much kindness can turn sour. That tiptoeing around someone’s fear or obsessive behavior for too long can turn them into a tyrant. Overindulging extreme behavior morphs into a more toxic practice called enabling. Is it a kindness to bring a 600-lb. person more food because they can’t get out of bed, or is that called enabling? There is a fascinating show on TBS about this.
A skill of emotional intelligence is to discern when kindness starts going south and to abort mission. When intimidation to perform acts of kindness obfuscates actual kindness. Beware that kindness has many impersonations out there.
I consulted with a local rabbi about the meaning of foreign worship, otherwise known as avodah zara. He explained that avodah zara is the belief that anything other than Hashem can help you. The Rambam codified this opinion into law, when he said one should not visit graves (Aveilut 4:4). He was afraid this practice could lead to inappropriate worship, of people leaving G-d out entirely and praying to the dead people.
The Netziv explains the words (Devarim 8:19), “If you forget G-d.” is referring to when you think that Hashem isn’t the one watching over you. This may lead you to follow other gods or to think that nature alone runs the world. He asserts that we still possess a weakness for this type of avodah zara.
Another rabbi told me something else interesting. It is said about the Vilna Gaon that he wouldn’t go to doctors. This reminded me of people who are over 70 and (gasp) don’t go to doctors. It turns out that they are some of the healthiest people I know, both mentally and physically. This fierce subset of the population seems to have fared the best during this pandemic. They came out the other side stronger.
Another local rabbi called me today in support of my articles. He actually fits right into this category of outliers. He thinks differently than the rest. He is fearless. He is 74 years old. He shared with me the source of his strength. He quoted Rav Meir Simcha of D’vinsk. During WWI, people were terrified of dying. R’ Meir comforted them with this rally of faith. “Every bullet has its address.” This local rabbi reworded this same battle cry for our times. He said, “Every microbe has its address.” Wow. That is boots-on-the-ground faith. Walking the walk.
When I share my belief in practicing minimal hishtadlus to people, I often get this rebuttal: “Does that mean you would tell people not to go to the dentist?”
While it may be OK for some outliers to stay away from the medical doctor, unless you are genetically blessed with a zero rate of decay, you still need a dentist. You cannot get away from us. Teeth are different from the rest of the body. Teeth are the only part of the body that if left unattended, in an otherwise healthy person, shockingly turn to mush. Teeth are an end organ. Meaning, they are all the way down the line. They have almost no blood or lymphatic exchange. There is no cellular turnover. Teeth have zero capacity to heal themselves. We need tools and plaster to fix them. So that’s my answer to the hishtadlus/dentistry question. For some reason, unless you want dentures by age 40, teeth need more human intervention than the rest of the body. Go figure.
Back to avodah zara.
I read something astounding from Rav Elimelech Biderman about the avodah zara of Baal Peor in Parashat Balak (25:3). “It says, ‘The Jewish nation cleaved to Peor.’ Vayitzmod means they were strongly attached to this type of worship, like a tzemed, a bracelet, which cleaves tightly to one’s arm. What was so appealing about it (worshipping that specific idol)?
Rav Elimelech continues, “The Chasam Sofer, zt’l, explains that this type of idol worship (relieving yourself in front of the Peor) was done to express how lowly and mundane a human being is. When a Jew would perform this service, he concluded that he couldn’t serve Hashem. How can a human being (with all these lowly functions) serve Hashem? With that thought in mind he served the idol instead. That was the message of this ugly service. (A message of unworthiness towards G-d. That since we feel like dirt inside, why bother trying to connect to Him?)
The Navi states (Yehoshua 22:17), “Until today, we haven’t cleansed ourselves from the sin of Peor…Because it is tough to shed oneself from the negative feelings of detachment from Hashem.”
This is the real avodah zara of today that we cannot seem to shake. Namely, low self-esteem. It is so heartbreakingly prevalent, this feeling of unworthiness that disconnects you from G-d.
G-d wants so badly for you to feel good about yourself. Why? Because when you feel good about yourself you understand that you deserve all of His love. Hashem never stops doing two things, loving us and forgiving us.
Back to Rav Elimelech:
“The word tzemed expresses a tight bond. Rashi writes that the bond is like a lid placed over a utensil and then covered with wax to keep it on or firmly. This was the type of connection the Jews had with the idol Peor.”
Super tight. Airtight. With an idol. The analogy of this wax seal reminded me of the video tutorials circulating on the internet of ways to get your mask to seal tighter.
The last part of Rav Elimelech’s thought is that Jews are supposed to be bonded tight only with G-d. What springs forth from the tension created by our tight bond with G-d? Nothing less than our entire vitality.
Unfortunately, most of us are bonded more tightly to a negative self-image than a positive one. This is the main reason we turn away from G-d. The same reason our predecessors turned to the Baal Peor. We feel like we don’t deserve Him. We reach to foreign sources of comfort and weak devices of protection because we feel bad about ourselves. We don’t believe that G-d loves us enough to protect us. We are human. We forget that G-d created us human.
One of my sisters utters a beautiful verse before giving her kids medicine. It is long and it has the words “Rofei chinam” in it. A doctor my husband works with does the same before every procedure he performs. I think this is a centering way to be focused on Hashem as we do our part in creation.
When we do acts of hishtadlus that feel right to us, it is vital to have this exact mindfulness. That we reach up for G-d from inside any act. It is vital to source your self-esteem from inside your soul. Do not source your self-esteem from anything external — not looks, money, or profession. Those things come and go. Our soul never ages and never leaves us. It is our best friend. It is always down for a deep conversation.
Getting back to the question of hishtadlus, maybe hishtadlus is an inverse equation. Maybe the less human effort we put in, the more effort G-d puts in and vice versa. No one really knows, so why not err on the side of letting G-d do more of the heavy lifting?
Maybe G-d is the One supposed to be doing the bulk of the work. Isn’t it a little overboard to think we need to be protecting each other from the microscopic? Maybe this is an example of kindness gone too far that degraded into cruelty. I have seen actual babies with masks on their little faces and overworked delivery men struggling to breathe in the heat.
Let us notice the fine line when masks have become more about adornment and optics than about health. I was ordering my son pants on the Gap website and I noticed a new drop-down header labeled masks. Huh? Is this the new fashion? It is getting a little confusing.
Yarmulkes show the optics that we are a nation that puts G-d at the top of our heads. Being mindful of our mask can have a similar effect. We can maintain ourselves as distinct by being brave enough to do one distinct thing. Show the world that we understand our human limitations. We trust G-d with matters of breath. We can delicately return to His capable hands decisions of life and death. Humbly admit to G-d and to each other that we may have overstepped. We cannot control what we cannot see and we trust G-d to run that department. We trust Him not to hold us accountable for micro-events that we cannot even see happening in front of us. When we try to control things that intuitively fall outside our control, we only end up controlling each other. Look at Israel. It breaks my heart. They have turned the police against their own people over this issue.
It is said that the Shechinah never departs from the Kotel. Imagine the Shechinah seeing all those masked faces walking around the plaza? Does this show we do not trust His direct protection at the holiest of places? Should we start wearing gloves to touch a sefer Torah?
I miss Charles Krauthammer, a’h. I wonder what he would have said about all this. A man who understood from his neck down what it meant to surrender to G-d the things he could not control. He once said, “You are betraying your whole life if you don’t say what you think, and you don’t say it honestly and bluntly.”
G-d is pretty blunt, too. He repeatedly “insults” the Jewish people in one way. G-d calls us, “A stubborn, stiff-necked people” at least a dozen times in the Bible. Maybe G-d means we refuse to let go of this detached feeling of being unworthy of Him, of turning toward foreign sources for comfort because we don’t feel worthy of His time.
Let us show G-d that we changed, that we trust Him. This may be our chance to loosen up our stiff neck and relax into His arms.
Pinchas singlehandedly stopped a plague because he did one thing. He considered the feelings of G-d. G-d himself praises Pinchas for this. G-d directly credits Pinchas for calming down His wrath. He says, “Pinchas zealously avenged my vengeance.” The Sefer Zikaron explains that this phrase must mean that Pinchas felt the emotions that would have been appropriate to G-d under the circumstances.
Pinchas hurt for G-d. He imagined what it must have felt like for G-d to see so many of His children turn away from Him and towards the comfort of an idol. He acted fiercely, boldly, and immediately for G-d. And G-d appreciated him for it.
Let us do the same. Let us take a minute to consider G-d’s feelings. If one of my children came into my house wearing a mask and refused to take it off or interact with my other children, I would be hurt, too. This is my house, the house you grew up in; does it no longer meet your standards of safety?
Let us remember every time we put on a mask that it is not the mask keeping us safe. It is Hashem. I fall back on Adon Olam. G-d is my Symbol, not the mask.
I had a thought this afternoon that set my world on fire. If G-d Himself is our miracle, our symbol, then the phrase ein somchin al ha’neis starts to sound almost heretical. Yesh somchin al haneis begins to emerge as the much better option. The paradigm shift goes like this. We are not relying on some ethereal miracle to save us. We are relying on a concrete G-d to save us. The real miracle is that G-d is the miracle. And nothing feels safer to the soul than relying on G-d.
This virus is offering us a chance to practice the skill of relying on G-d, to trust that the free air provided by the Rofei chinam is safe to breathe. To trust that the sweet breath G-d gifted us is not a contaminant. To trust that He created our bodies wisely with infinite healing capacities.
We came to the planet to experience G-d from down here. We knew Him pretty well up there. It just takes one breath to bring back the feeling. Breath is our first earthly experience and our last. Every breath in between, every inspiratory pull, is the invitation from G-d back to sweet Divine Romance.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote that the neshamah is where G-d’s breath mingles closely with your own. G-d’s breath is floating all around you waiting to be inhaled. The air right in front of your nose is the best drug in the world, the purest strain possible.
Take a long, slow drag. Breathe in unobstructed lungfuls of that kindness and pass it straight to the lung’s closest organ, the heart. Let each oxygenated red blood cell perfuse a singular loving message to every organ in your body: How infinitely worthy we all are of G-d’s love and protection. Let every single breath remind you.
EDITORS NOTE: The discussion and debate over the global response to the COVID-19 virus will most likely go on for months, maybe years. It is the opinion of the 5TJT that we should follow the protocols set by our medical experts and rabbinical authorities, especially on the important matter of social distancing and wearing masks.