Over the last couple of weeks I have written about teshuvah and our overall preparation for the Yomim Nora’im in the context of song. It occurred to me that, by contrast, the topic I’ve decided to cover this week is not necessarily music to everyone’s ears; for many, if it were within their jurisdiction, they’d add another “al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha”—for walking into a store without a mask.
But the truth is I’m not writing about mask-wearing as a deterrent to spreading COVID-19, but more along the lines of a moral about the awareness of having to have a mask at arm’s length anytime we leave home. I guess, to paraphrase the famous American Express slogan, the mask is something that we cannot leave home without.
Every morning, at some point during my three-minute walk from home to my office, I inevitably reach into my pockets to ascertain that I have a mask in case I need to go to a store during the course of the day. And then the following moral began formulating in my mind.
The month of Elul, as a prelude to the month of Tishrei with all of its holidays, is all about change. Teshuvah, in the famous words of the Rambam, is only complete when the Knower of secrets can testify that we will never again transgress His will, requiring us to repent in the fashion we once did. Every time I learn those words I marvel at the sincerity of such an intense repentance but always find myself wondering whether it is even possible.
However, the Rambam additionally writes in his laws of repentance that one who repents with a full heart is a completely different person, to the point where it may even be appropriate for the penitent to change his or her name. In an era when most of the people we come across during the day, walking through the streets or in one of the local establishments, have a mask covering most of their face, in a sense, many of them are not the people we thought they were.
I attended a wedding the other day, the first one I had attended throughout the corona era. When I went up to the father of the chassan to wish him mazal tov, I saw he was struggling to see through the mask. I had to take off the mask that was blocking my face in order for him to realize who I was.
Now, you are probably thinking that I’m attempting to be amusing, but Reb Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, in one of his sefarim on Tishrei, cites from other eminent tzaddikim that the importance of wearing our talleisim over our heads, especially during the Yomim Nora’im, is to become indiscernible from each other. He writes that we want to try to minimize our independent uniqueness during the days of judgment and instead seek to become a part of the congregation of Jews with whom we are praying.
As these thoughts were coming to me, the one that kept recurring within my mind was that this all seems so disingenuous, as if we are attempting to deceive G-d into blessing us with a sweet year, if that is even possible. It’s almost inconceivable to see teshuvah, on the one hand, as this existential transformation wherein even G-d could testify that we are no longer the same people who once infracted His will, and on the other hand to suggest that a practical way in undergoing this change, in the absence of true transformation, is to just throw a covering over our heads and show G-d that we are essentially different.
I then began to realize that if there was one major distinction between this generation and those past, it is the desire for authenticity and the preparedness to reject anything that seems disingenuous. There was a time when people were content giving off a righteous image without having to work at becoming righteous. I guess that would go hand in hand with the contentment of buying knockoff brands that look like brand-name items just so others should think that we are wearing something far more luxurious than it actually is. While I imagine that still exists, I get the feeling that it isn’t as prevalent as it was when I was growing up, and I think it points to the sincerity of the younger generation.
There is a famous story told of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev when he came across a Jew eating on Tishah B’Av. He exclaimed, “You must have forgotten that today is Tishah B’Av!”
The Jew responded, “No, Rebbe, I know it is Tishah B’Av and I still decided to eat.”
The Berditchever then responded excitedly, “You must not be feeling well. Refuah sheleimah!”
Whereupon the Jew responded, “Rebbe, no, I’m feeling just fine but I am still eating on this day.”
Reb Levi Yitzchak turned heavenward and exclaimed, “Ribbono shel Olam, I gave this Jew two opportunities to skirt culpability for eating on this holy day and it never even dawned on him to utter a lie.”
It seems, on some level, that people feel as if engaging in the rites of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or truly attempting to be happy on Sukkos and Simchas Torah is a denial of their true self, when in fact it is an indication that they are unaware of who they truly are in the first place. The Ba’al Shem Tov interprets the verse, “V’anochi hastir astir panai ba’yom ha’hu,” which translates as “And I will surely hide My face on that day” to mean that there will come a time in exile that the fact that G-d’s face is hidden will be hidden. On a certain level, people walk around with a sober image of themselves, in the interest of not being in self-denial when in fact it is the biggest denial of self.
Do we define ourselves based on the identification in our passports alone? It might reflect our name, address, gender, and other identifying information of who we are outwardly, but if I want to know who you are in essence, at your core, the information in the passport or on your birth certificate is not helpful. Quite the contrary; in many instances, our outward identification and oftentimes our relation to other people and the knowledge of who they are outwardly detracts from getting to know ourselves at our deepest and unsullied core.
Can you imagine what would have become of us as a people had our forefather Avraham resigned himself to the fact that since he served idols in the house of his father, Terach, he was unfit to be the progenitor of the Jewish people? We were all endowed with an actual part of G-d, which was blown into our nostrils and continues to vivify us as long as we live. It is not a denial of self to define ourselves based on the existence of that soul. It is more of a denial of self to define ourselves based on our outward appearance than to perceive ourselves at our core.
I believe that is precisely what we repent over during the month of Tishrei — our conduct that was in contradistinction to G-d’s Will was an expression of self-affirmation when in fact it did not reflect at all who we were in essence.
Covering our heads with our talleisim to become indistinguishable from the others in our congregation is not deceiving G-d but a deception of the image we had of ourselves that wasn’t ever reflective of who we were in essence. I scoff inwardly at the signs on storefronts that say “No mask, no entry,” as if the store owners really care whether or not their patrons, who are helping pay their rent and put food on their tables, are wearing masks or not. It’s almost as sincere as the BLM signs that were emblazoned on some storefronts ahead of nearby protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. But in light of the above, “No mask, no entry” really means that sometimes a mask is necessary to access our true inner core.