By Gila Jedwab, DMD
The Torah is a gift. Why do we call it that? Because it keeps on giving.
The most amazing realization is this. The eyes inside your head, in the year 2020, can be the first eyes in the history of creation to spot something new inside the biblical text. Something that no other eye in 3,332 years has ever spotted before. A secret tucked neatly and inconspicuously by G-d into the folds of the Torah. A mystery silently waiting to be unraveled at just the right time by just the right person. And the person chosen to stumble upon it could be you. If you have ever experienced this, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You look furtively around the room, unsure of this gem that just fell into your lap.
This kind of accidental find has come to be known endearingly by the Torah community as a chiddush. When you find a chiddush in the Torah the feeling inside is combustible. You want to set off a firecracker and announce it to the world. This is why we never stop digging inside the Torah. There is buried treasure waiting to be unearthed. Ancient gems calmly waiting their turn to unfurl their timeless messages into modern relevance. While the original text was first written in ancient Hebrew, it turns out that the Torah seems pretty fluent in modern Hebrew as well.
A learned friend of mine stumbled upon a chiddush of his own last week. He was the first set of eyes to see it jump off the page while he was minding his own business meandering through shnayim Mikrah v’echad Targum. He texted me a screenshot of the shimmering verse that caught his eye, unsure if he picked up a diamond or fool’s gold. I immediately saw it as a diamond. I celebrated its discovery as if I had won the lottery. Because this nugget traveled to me at just the right time and just the right place, as if G-d came to whisper punctual encouragement of a premise I articulated in my latest article. About the masks having the potential to become idol worship if we don’t remember that under the mask, it is really G-d protecting us. The timing was uncanny.
If I could relay one valuable spiritual lesson during my 45 years on earth, it is this. As much as I try to orchestrate and micromanage the details of my life, I can never, not ever, force a coincidence. Coincidences are only set loose by G-d Himself. Carl Jung gave this creature a tinkling name that hits the ear like wind chimes to the soul. Synchronicity. Synchronicity is that sweet spot where exquisite timing meets precise coordination and your whole world goes quiet for a breathless moment. In other words, a wink and a nod from G-d.
My friend sent my moment of synchronicity via WhatsApp.
It came from Parashat Masei, chapter 33, verse 52. A directive from the Mouth of G-d to Moshe in the plains of Moab. G-d giving detailed instructions to the Jews to destroy three various descriptions of idols as they go up and inherit the land of Israel.
“And you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you, and you shall destroy all their prostration stones, all their ‘graven images’ you shall destroy, and all their high places you shall demolish.”
The Hebrew word G-d uses for “graven images” caught my friend’s eye. He said it is identical to the word modern Hebrew now uses for masks — maseicha.
Then the idea came to me to lift the entire textual phrase for “graven images” from the Bible, “tzalmei maseichosam,” and plug it into Google Translate. The translation that stared back from my phone screen made my eyes go wide. “Photographers of their masks.”
What is translated by ArtScroll as “graven images” is translated by Google as “photographers of their masks?” A little creepy, no?
It makes me wonder. Why would G-d have selected these two particular words millennia ago? There are many other words He could have chosen. Is this G-d reaching forward in time to warn us of something? To alert us to the visual onslaught of masked faces captured by the photographers of the media? I’m not sure how much more verbally explicit G-d could have been with this.
Even creepier is that three verses later G-d describes what will happen if you don’t destroy these Photographers of Their Masks. “They will be pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you on the land you are living in. Rashi explains the word “thorns,” and it sounds eerily current. “These thorns will imprison you, close you in from coming, and close you in from going.” I just heard about a groom whose Canadian parents can’t be at their own son’s wedding in America. And a couple in Kentucky put on house arrest after they refused to quarantine following COVID-19 exposure.
Tehillim (106:19) comes to corroborate. “Ya’asu eigel b’Chorev, v’yishtachavu l’masecha.” Google Translate: “They will make a calf in Horeb, and bow down to the mask.” A pretty striking forecast to modern times. Interesting that the photographers of masks are the same photographers of people bowing and taking a knee these days.
Are these two words in the Bible revealing themselves at this moment in time to sound an alarm bell? To warn us of an incoming masked idol that we never fully destroyed so it is still around to harass us in the land? If so, how did we not see it coming?
Maybe we can’t see this harasser because he is masquerading around as kindness, virtually undetectable in this disguise, even applauded under this camouflage. Speaking words like, “For your own good, it’s only an inconvenience, and for the protection of all those around you,” fooling even the most learned among us, under this compelling mask of kindness. A predator that understands how easily it can sink its teeth into the good-hearted among us who want to follow its protocols of protection.
Under these new Protocols of Protection, authentic kindness seems to be slipping away. The basic tactile feedback of hugs and kisses has turned contraband. For me, smiles have been the saddest casualty. Smiles are oxygen to my mood. Giving and receiving. Tal Ben Shachar, a Harvard professor who studies happiness, correlates your overall good mood with the frequency of your smiles. Happiness hormones are flooded into your brain by the smile muscles of your face. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Sometimes your joy can be the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
This past week a few stories illustrating this sad decline in real kindness made their way to me.
- A 75-year-old man made to run on a treadmill in a cardiologist’s office for his annual stress test, wearing a mask. Huffing and puffing.
- A frightened 20-year-old girl going for her first root canal. Her mom not allowed to join her in the office. Surrounded by unfamiliar half faces and muffled voices during the procedure.
- An elderly man hospitalized in the ICU with corona retold how the nurses threw him his airline meals and then fled the scene ASAP. He said he was too weak to even open the plastic cover and eat.
- My friend had to come home early from an outing to Manhattan. She took her kids to the ferry. She told me that the sea of depressed, masked faces on the boat was too unsettling for them. They all just wanted to go home.
- A pregnant nurse in Israel was reported by a coworker for having her mask down while entering the building on a hot summer afternoon. This poor woman was reprimanded by her boss and sent into contractions.
In trying to “protect” each other, have we lost our way with kindness? When kindness gets blended with the need to control, does it become something entirely different? Does it become a cocktail for cruelty? In simple psychology, if you are attempting to control behavior by doling out guilt, it is called by another name, emotional manipulation.
I feel like we all have been invited to a bizarre Halloween party where masked waitresses are passing around trays of bad news, irritating slogans, and tampered data as hors d’oeuvres. And I just want to take my mask off and go home.
Just when it all started to feel too much, by the grace of G-d, I spotted a human face. I shared a beautiful moment of camaraderie with a stranger on Friday afternoon. I walked out of a grocery store and pulled my mask off in sweet relief. This beautiful girl with amazing teeth, pushing a stroller, passed me in slow motion. She flashed me a huge mask-less smile. I tell you, I have never felt so loved or so understood in two seconds flat, in my entire life. She lit up the rest of my day.
When I treat patients in my own office I intuitively know that there is only one way to help them feel safe with me. The look on my face. It conveys more loving concern than any amount of barrier tape or Plexiglas ever could.
The visual dystopia of seeing masked faces everywhere starts to take a toll. I’m not sure how many people feel this way. To me, it is emotionally disturbing. Antithetical to life. Zombieville. The mental image of our kids being made to wear masks in the classroom depresses me the most. How have we, the adults of the world, let their world come down to this? Innocent bystanders to a world gone mad. I hope our world comes back to its senses in time for their new school year so the kids can breathe and participate in life again.
I was chatting with an Israeli patient of mine. She helped me understand what is really happening under the mask. She said that maybe masks are here for a purpose. Maybe they are here to unmask something for our generation to deal with once and for all. Sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Underlying contentions that have been percolating beneath the surface for a while now. Maybe masks are unmasking these animosities so we can finally face them. Left vs. right. Dati vs. chiloni. Republican vs. Democrat. Let’s unmask the real issues and learn how to live respectfully side by side. Neither side forcing anything on the other. Each human being allowed to choose what is best for them.
Let’s not pretend it is only about a mask. Let’s not hide behind a false virtuosity while refusing to talk about the real issues, unable to talk because we can hardly hear each other. Let us learn how to come together in love and acceptance no matter what the issue. Most of all, let us remember to give G-d, not the mask, the credit for this pandemic easing up.
Masks have also unmasked my own personal fears. They sound like this. Will our world ever return to normal? Will people ever feel safe in each other’s presence again? Will humanity ever unite and show G-d we trust Him to run the world? Can our generation be the one that gets that right once and for all? Will we be able to travel freely and pray together freely soon? These are the fears that run through my head. I take this opportunity in ink to tell G-d that I trust Him to deliver us back to normalcy and freedom, soon! That we are already on our way there. That whatever this was, it is almost over. I trust You, G-d, to help us hit the massive refresh button in the sky.
Let us remember to be kind in the most authentic way, with one basic litmus test to distinguish true kindness from its evil twin. True kindness never imprisons another being so it can feel more comfortable. Real kindness holds no hostages and makes no demands.
As this frenzy abates, let us fill in the space with all the calmest things in life. Freedom, liberty, and justice for all. Let us hear the words “In G-d We Trust” as new. Realize in our hearts that this was all the advice we ever really needed. For inside these words we become one nation, under G-d, indivisible. In simple math, the more peacefully we come together here on earth, the more effortlessly the redemption descends down to us from Heaven. May it be quickly and in our days.
EDITORS NOTE: The 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.