Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Adar 5759 - Feb 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
The Task of the Mask
by R' Arye Geffen

Where do we find Esther alluded to in the Torah? Because it is written, "And I shall verily hide My face" (Chulin 139b).

A mask is generally intended to conceal and cover what lies behind it, to provide a different face. Anyone gazing upon the mask sees the face with a new interpretation, another expression and representation, another outlook to an exposed truth even though it may be hidden underneath the mask. Our essay deals with the mask and what lies behind it.

A person's face is like the shadow that constantly pursues him. The shadow is sometimes dwarfed by the body it reflects and is the runner-up and-behind; it shadow-boxes with its owner from the side, back, front; it is the tag along, the tail end.

The same applies to a person's face. Each day is faced by its particular face, each period in life and its facade, its expression. A man possesses seventy faces, if you will, each hiding a different aspect of his inner personality, which rarely makes its own appearance to reveal the true face. One cannot judge a person by his physiognomic exterior; there is too much hidden behind.

Masks can be divided into several categories. Each mask has its habitat, its home-range, the source which nurtures it. And even masks possess many faces and fall into many groupings, upon which we shall elaborate.

"Thou Shalt Make Yourself No Molten Gods"

The first group is composed of those few people who refuse to don any mask whatsoever, who will never face another person frontally with the truth they harbor within their hearts. They seek no masks to hide behind; they make no pretenses and do not change roles or representations.

A mikveh purifies a person from his defilement only if he immerses himself in a body containing at least forty so'oh. On the other hand, a flowing fountain has the capacity of purifying anyone who immerses completely in its waters, even if the flow is less than the above requirement at any given time, since the fountain is a powerful entity at its initial, primary source. When a person comes with the very source, he does not require mass or quantity since the effervescence alone constitutes a true and original source stronger than anything else.

People of quality will have nothing to do with substitutes, parodies, counterfeits or imitations. The fountain that flows in their souls is a source of life, it is pristine, unpolluted or contaminated; it is pure. People of this caliber have their own manner of speech, a style that bursts forth from their very essence, an inimical mode that breathes truth and originality. Since it is not an imitation, it must be primary and generative. It is a style purely theirs. Original.

The Admor R' Itche Meir of Ger zt'l uttered one of the most original statements I have ever heard: "I never imitated any person, except for one, when I went and imitated my father and followed his advice, doing exactly what he bade me. And he told me: `Never imitate any person!'"

Whoever follows his own instinct, the dictates of his own conscience, shuns a mask, even when there is a price to pay, which is sometimes very high. Not everyone will understand him. He cannot always be pleasant and accommodating. He must sometimes be distant and cool for the sake of his own integrity. He must sacrifice acceptance and popularity; he refuses to bow to what the public would like to see. They, for their part, will not don any mask, for any person. They will not melt down, remold or modify their stand, their appearance, for anyone. No molten gods for them.

Those Who Live by the Mirror Reflection

There is another group: those who draw their vitality from the mask, from play acting, false representation of anything except their true essence. Their aspirations are built on "How do I look to others? What impression do I make? What do others think of me?"

Whenever they want to know what lies inside their soul, in what way they are unique, they ask the mirror on the wall. They look outward, at reflections. They think that the more successful they appear in the eyes of others, the better off they are, for this is the true picture of their worth. Their identity is expressed in terms of what others think of them, like the identical twin who asks his brother to try something on so he will see how he will look in it. This is a looking glass life.

Life flits by, eddies all around them, without truly involving them. Everything is for appearance' sake; nothing is real. They are indentured servants, from ear-to-heel, to the rings and shackles of public opinion. They blithely swim along with the current of the mass mind, drowning any private, personal notions or ideas. They buy clothing, go on vacation, hold simchas, send children to educational institutions -- all according to the fashion of the times. Their lives are dictated by "what everyone is doing," what is "in," by what they see reflected in the public mirror many times, from the mass-many.

Not only do they wear the mask on their face, but they cloak themselves in an entire theatrical mantle to smother their very soul. Not an inch of their true selves must peak out; they leave only slits in their masquerade for the eyes, lest they reveal any real essence that is not smeared by mass mores. Anything that might identify them as "different." They are like marionettes, dancing on strings pulled by the pace setting of society. They may fool others; they are certainly making fools of themselves.

Why "did fire consume the cedars"? Because they lived according to "what will the lowly lichen say". In bowing and scraping to public propriety, their own backbones disintegrated into gel. They forfeited any individual opinion; any originality ever possessed was gobbled and garbled by the tentacles of mass opinion into a mass jelly. Chazal said, "`A person's opinion should forever be mingled among his fellow man' -- so that each one should do as he individually feels is best" (Kesuvos 17 and Rashi).

The Mask of the Critic

There is a third group which wears a mask, understandably, because they are afraid to show faces that are wicked, wily, stony and scheming.

This group shows its face only to itself. The mask they choose to don at any given occasion is the one that bests suits their purposes.

Truth is like a rainbow to them; it is composed of a spectrum with a range, or like a bow which must be straightened for their purposes. Does a ladder incline? They are there to erect it perpendicularly. They are "the conscience of society," within single quotes. They subscribe to law and justice -- as they interpret it, to righting wrongs, to making sure that others toe the line. They will tirelessly criticize everything around them. They have something to say about everything, and declare it with righteous sanctimony.

In our sources, a beard is called chasimas zokon, a "signature" or seal, since the beard seals and conceals the face behind it. Is the face behind it smooth? Is the beard genuine or does it serve for no more than a Purim mask? What function does any given beard serve to its wearer?

There are faces as smooth as marble, still awaiting the first scraggles of a beard, waiting to see how the prickly hairs will sit on the host face, how they will look and what they will add.

There was once an ancient philosopher who was an expert in character analysis and knew what a person was best suited for in life. He told each one what his strengths and weaknesses were extremely accurately. In one area, however, he failed. He could not diagnose his own son's fortes. He studied his behavior carefully and one day, saw the youth standing by a young mewling sheep. "Meh, meh," said the sheep.

The boy chided the animal, saying, "That's not how you're supposed to bleat. Say `meheheh, meheheh, meheheh.'"

At these words, the father's eyes lit up in joy. "Now I know your destiny in life," he said to the child. "When you grow up, you're going to be a great philosopher!"

The second type of people do not only put on masks for their own faces; they see to it that others put on the proper masks, make the proper appearance, play the game according to the rules.

They seem to be taking up the rear command; they manufacture masks for the public, for they believe that if they "educate" others, they are discharging their public duty and are no longer under any obligation. A man once said to a Torah leader, "I am already a lost case. What I want now is for my son to become a godol beTorah. I desire this with all my heart." Answered that sage, "Never mind. If he doesn't make it, at least he will aspire that his son will become that godol. Thus, in an unbroken chain [always just one step behind]."

Something interesting has happened to this group in the course of time. A subcategory has emerged, a subgroup that believes with all its heart that the world is full of hurdles and stumbling blocks. Misfortune and injustice lurks everywhere and only they can right all wrongs.

One such person, the self-styled [Robin Hood] who is replete with good intentions, saints in their own eyes, is the butt of the following joke: A man once met a friend carrying a suitcase and, full of curiosity, immediately asked him where he was headed. "To Bnei Brak," the latter replied curtly. The first man gave him a sharp look and said, "Oh, I can guess that. And I know you told me you were going to Bnei Brak so that I would think you were going to Petach Tikvah. But you can't fool me because I know that you really are going to Bnei Brak. So why do you have to lie and make me think otherwise?"

The Mask of Derech Eretz

Another group standing by the mask counter waiting to be served needs masks that are reversed, the hat with its crown turned around. They spin their masks on their finger with a smugness as if to say, "Come, listen to what I have to say. Come, study by me and I'll teach you a thing or two."

This group is composed of those who are young in spirit but old in self importance. They think that whatever they are told by those with experience, parents or educators, is something that must be turned about and done differently. They, themselves, surely know better, they are "with it." They know how to run the world and are prepared to do so, militantly. One glance at the cocky, cockeyed way they wear their mask is enough to reveal what they are underneath. To rephrase an old adage, "Tell me what you are impersonating and I'll tell you what you are."

The Bostoner Rebbe was surely referring to this type when he once said at a Purim tish, "Why is the gemora always asking for the reasoning of the first tana quoted in the mishna, and not the reasoning of the second one? The answer is very simple: the second tana already heard what the first one had to say, so he automatically knows that he must say the opposite, whereas the tana kama hadn't heard anyone's opinion yet. Where, then, did he get his opinion?"

A Mask to the Skin

And, finally, there is a group of loners, purists, who hid themselves because they are too fit to be seen. They must don a mask to hide that which would shake ordinary people.

"`And Moshe finished talking with them and he donned a mask to his face' -- for after they had sinned, they were not worthy of even looking their `agent' in the face" (Pesikta d'R' Kahana 5). As soon as the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf and defiled themselves with idolatry, they were unable to gaze upon the rays of glory which radiated from Moshe's face. They begged Moshe to don a mask to cover his holy radiance, to cover up the cry in their hearts over the fact that they had lost so much, had fallen so low through their sin."

Esther withheld the facts of her origin and nationality. That king was not worthy of knowing her pure source. Esther did not tell -- she preserved her modesty and self respect. "The glory of Hashem lies in the hidden thing." Only when she had to risk her very life, when she declared that "As I am lost, I am lost," did she allow him a glimpse of her origin. Only then did she remove her mask of concealment and secrecy to tell him the truth.

"What is the origin of Esther in the Torah? Because it is written, `And I shall verily hide My face,'" (Chulin 139b). We find ourselves in a generation of hester ponim. Everything appears to be overt, obvious, simple and clear. Every setback or hurdle has a corresponding explanation, a seemingly rational reason. And the list of the finger pointing is long: the Angel of Death is to blame, the condition of the roads is to blame, human error is the culprit, incurable illnesses are at fault, the Oslo agreements are at fault, or, alternately, Saddam and his madness, or in narrow terms -- one's place of work, one's boss, one's neighbors and so on.

"How great are Your works, Hashem; how profound are Your thoughts. An ignorant person will not know and a fool will not understand this." One must be a boor and fool not to see Hashem's presence and providence everywhere; he must be wearing a mask or veil over his good sense and senses not to be aware that there are miracles to be seen, that it is all a cover-up, a curtain over the truth and another drape to hide that curtain. Concealment within concealment.

"And I shall verily hide My face..."

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