The Masks We Wear
BY RABBI ARI ROCKOFF
There are rare times when we experience moments that stay with us forever, moments that retain their clarity and rawness, even with the passage of time. We remember where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when Jerusalem was liberated and united, and when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11.
But our current moment in history – a moment that has lasted two years and not ended yet – is different. Though the COVID pandemic has reshaped our lives, it is hard to recall just when we became aware of it. It was only slowly that it struck individuals, then communities, then overwhelmed whole countries and continents.
Though it lacked a dramatic beginning, the pandemic has changed our lives; Zoom meetings and remote schooling; canceled events and smachot; quarantines. Our very appearance has changed. For some time it has been “normal” to interact with friends, colleagues, and neighbors from behind masks. We can only wonder what the long-term impact of masks will be. Yet as Purim approaches, it is worth noting that we have been wearing masks for a very long time.
Throughout history, Jews have worn many masks. We’ve worn masks to camouflage our faith, but also to highlight it. We wore masks as Marranos, but also to show others we are different, and proudly so. In his book, We Jews, Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz, zt”l asks, “Are we actors with masks?” He notes that “one of the most conspicuous characteristics of the Jews is their extraordinary capacity to reflect their surroundings by the existential factors of Jewish life over the centuries.” In other words, our people’s masks have changed and evolved, adapting to different circumstances and environments throughout the generations. Jews trying to survive in the medieval Rhineland wore different masks than those of Jews in Colonial America.
Today, in America, our community continues to wear masks, struggling with a question as old as the modern Zionist movement itself. Who are we, really?
Dr. Kenneth Gergen, in an article for Psychology Today entitled “Multiple Identity,” argues that “the healthy, happy human being wears many masks… We are made of soft plastic, and molded by social circumstances… Once donned, [the] mask becomes reality.” Rather than hiding our inner selves, masks let us project our ideas and values outward. “The mask,” says Gergen, “may not be the symbol of superficiality that we have thought it was, but [rather] the means of realizing our potential.” In other words, adds Dr. Eli Gottlieb, “it is not only normal for us to wear many masks, but desirable for us to do so.”
When she learns of Haman’s decree, Esther hesitates at first, afraid to act on behalf of her people. In the Megillah’s most poignant verse, Mordechai responds: “On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:14) In his essay titled “The Festival of Masks,” Rabbi Steinsaltz comments: “In the beginning one sees a frowning face, but eventually one sees that it is nothing but a mask. The terrifying threat not only vanishes, it turns into joy and salvation. In this way we express the essence of Purim as a festival marked from beginning to end, by concealing and revelation.”
On Purim we should ask ourselves: Are we American Jews with Zionist masks? Zionists with American masks? Do our masks hide or express who we really are?
Yet perhaps this is a false dilemma. In a deeper sense it is not either-or; we are, in fact, both. We are proud American Jews, and at the same time vigorous Zionists, longing for and promoting the well-being of our Jewish nation’s ancient home, now reborn.
The pandemic did not have a clear beginning, and may not have a sharply-defined end. At the same time, one thing is clear: all of us don masks, all of us are actors. This is not the first time we’ve worn masks, nor will it be the last.
Rabbi Ari Rockoff is the Executive Vice President of RZA–Mizrachi.