We’ve each come up with our own tricks to make the past year and a half a little more bearable. One of mine is that, sometimes, when I’m wearing a mask, I like to pretend I’m a ninja, or a Star Wars villain. Wearing a hoodie, or, when I’m davvening, putting my tallis over my head, makes the illusion even more deeply satisfying. Go ahead, try it sometime. You have your rabbi’s permission. Consider it my High Holiday gift to you — a little trick that can make the unpleasant act of wearing a mask fun, a momentary escape into a thrilling fantasy.
See, that’s the thing about masks — yes, they help us protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, and yes, they can also be uncomfortable, annoying, and frustrating. But they also enable us to pretend to be something or someone else, to present ourselves to the world however we want others perceive us, to hide from others and, sometimes, even from ourselves.
This is true not only of physical masks, but also of metaphorical ones. When you stop to think about it, we all wear masks, figuratively speaking. Each and every day, we all put on various facades to present ourselves to the world as we want to be perceived, and as we want to see ourselves.
Our facades take various forms. We may take off and put on multiple different ones in the course of any given day. Sometimes, the masks we wear serve beneficial purposes — comfort, protection, respect for others, dignity for ourselves.
But often, we put on masks because we’re afraid — we fear that if the world were to see us as we truly are, if our authentic selves were on full display, we would be rejected. So great is our desire to love and be loved, to be accepted and to belong, to possess what we perceive ourselves to lack, or to attain some sense of control in a chaotic world, that we are all too willing to pretend to be someone or something else.
And ironically, it is this perpetual mask wearing — which is rooted in our discomfort with the flawed and fragile soul we know ourselves deep down to be — that so often results in our tendency to fall and to fail, to act in ways that harm ourselves and others, which in turn only makes us want to put on better disguises.
This vicious cycle has been part of the human condition since the beginning; it’s practically encoded in our DNA. In my midrash class this year, we studied rabbinic teachings about Adam and Eve committing the world’s first sin.
According to some of our tradition’s sages, the first human beings ate from the Tree of Knowledge because they were dissatisfied with their perceived place in the order of things; they believed that eating the tree’s fruit would make them more than they were, even, perhaps, make them into gods.
And, when they feared their wrongdoing had been discovered, they hid out of shame. The insecurity leads to the fall, which leads to more insecurity, which, invariably, leads to more falling.
We may no longer live in the Garden of Eden or wear garments woven from fig leaves. But are we really all that different from our earliest ancestors?
Yom Kippur interrupts the momentum of our busy lives each fall with the intention of helping us break this cycle. Stop everything, it says. Just for a moment. Stop acting like the boss, the employee, the communal leader, the parent, the child, the spouse, the friend you feel you are supposed to be, just for one day. Put aside the costume you think you need to wear in order to belong, to feel loved, or significant, or in control. Lay down the armor you think you need to put on to protect yourself from feeling hurt, or rejected, or ignored. In fact, stop everything about your routine — stop wearing the clothes you normally wear, stop being concerned about your body odor and your stinky breath, stop numbing your pain with physical pleasures, stop eating, and even drinking water.
And now, stripped of all the masks you wear, take a look at yourself honestly. Yes, to reflect on the times you missed the mark, on the times you resolved to mend your ways and did not succeed, on how your life as it is does not align with the way it ought to be, on how you have not done enough to help redeem the world.
But also to consider the uniquely beautiful and beloved and worthy person you actually are, to stand before a God of love and forgiveness who has known you in all of your perfect imperfection from the moment you were born, who has witnessed all of your triumphs and failures, and who above all sees into your heart (Cf. I Samuel 16:7), who knows exactly how you are flawed and loves you anyway, who loves you even because of your blemishes, who sees how you have missed the mark but also how deeply you desire to do the right thing, how you are striving to be the best person — the best parent, partner, child, sibling, friend, community member — you can be, even as you, even as we all, sometimes fall short of those goals.
This, after all, is a God who, according to the Torah, created each and every one of us in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27). Our ancient rabbis take this idea even further. In one of my favorite texts, a teaching that is at once beautiful, powerful, and foundational to Jewish faith and values, the sages of the Mishnah declare:
The first human being was created alone…to tell of God’s greatness, for when a human being makes several coins with one mold, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy Blessed One, made all people in the mold of the first human, and not one of them is similar to another…Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
If every individual is intrinsically godly, then, like God, every one of us is indispensable. And since no two human beings are exactly alike, then our distinctiveness is divine. The fact that every single human being is unique and essential testifies to God’s greatness. It is therefore heresy to want to be someone or something else, or to want someone else to be more like us.
True, it can be uncomfortable, perhaps even painful, to gaze into an honest mirror, one that reveals all our flaws and all our faults. But Yom Kippur invites us to see in that mirror our redeeming qualities alongside our flaws. Though we may tend to fixate on our imperfections when we look at our reflection, a more objective look will invariably reveal that our blemishes are in fact negligible when compared to our many, many beautiful features.
And, moreover, Yom Kippur reminds us that we can view our imperfections not as deficiencies, but as distinctiveness, remembering that we are each created special, that beneath everything we may have gotten wrong in the past year, or indeed during the entire course of our lives, is an inherent goodness.
Remember that the essence of Yom Kippur, indeed of the entire High Holy Day season, is teshuvah. The term teshuvah is usually translated as repentance, but it literally means to return. If repentance is ultimately about returning, then our tradition is insisting our most basic natural state is goodness. Yom Kippur, then, is not about becoming someone different, but rather about returning to our essential selves and committing in the year to come to be the fullest and best possible versions of those selves.
This day calls on each of us to remember that, underneath everything, who you fundamentally are is the “you” who is devoted to your spouse, your parents, your friends, or whoever is significant to you in your life. You are the “you” who tries your very best to raise good kids, even when your kids don’t make it particularly easy. You are the “you” who lifts up others’ spirits with your music, your art, your dad jokes, your world-famous chocolate chip cookies. You are the “you” who tries to learn something new as often as you can, and who generously shares your knowledge with others. You are the “you” who cares for those who are sick or struggling; who shows up to comfort the bereaved; who pursues justice in our city; and who strives to repair our world.
And that’s just regular “you.” Take care not to overlook the ‘you’ that has been revealed over the past 18 months. The “you” who has gone out of your way to log on to Zoom for daily minyan in case someone needed to say Kaddish. The “you” who participated in our Caring Crews initiative, making weekly phone calls to those who are isolated at home. The “you” who delivered honey cakes to fellow congregants mourning a loss. The “you” who provided hundreds of meals to frontline healthcare workers. The “you” who is a frontline healthcare professional or other essential worker.
As a matter of fact, many of you took the time in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days to reflect on the last year. I was so moved and inspired by your submissions, which reveal who you have proven yourselves to be during this trying time: You are the “you” who embraced a period of isolation as an opportunity to quiet and slow down. You are the “you” who became open to new relationships, to new love. You are the “you” who cultivated gratitude and grace, forbearance and faith. You are the “you” who leaned into listening more, learned how to let go more, and gained a passion for giving more.
As we stand maskless before ourselves, our community, and above all, a God of love and forgiveness on Yom Kippur, do not for one moment forget that this, all of this and more, is who you are, who you really are.
On this holy day, we are given a new opportunity to rediscover and embrace who we are, and in so doing, become who we were always meant to be.
Besides periodically pretending to be Kylo Ren when I strap on my trusty N95, another thing that has gotten me through this pandemic has been the TV show Ted Lasso.
In short, the series is about a relentlessly positive American college football coach named Ted Lasso who is, in defiance of reason, hired to lead a British professional soccer team. In one episode, a character named Keeley approaches Ted and asks him, “Which would you rather be, a lion or a panda?”
A debate ensues between Ted and Rebecca, Ted’s boss. Ted replies that he would rather be a panda. Rebecca argues that “lion” is the obvious and only correct choice. Jamie, the team’s talented but dim-witted star, stumbles into the argument. Ted asks him to choose between the two animals. Jamie seems genuinely puzzled by the question. “I’m me,” he answers. “Why would I want to be anything else?”
Ted quips that Jamie likely doesn’t realize how psychologically healthy that answer is. But that is precisely what this holy day urges us to affirm. Today we stand before God as we truly are, stripped of all disguise and pretense, and hear God say, “You’re you. Why would I want you to be anything else?”
Can we, in the course of these next 25 hours or so, come to look at ourselves as we truly are, stripped of all disguise and pretense, and say to ourselves, “I’m me. Why would I want to be anything else?”
That’s what it means to be inscribed and sealed for life in the year to come. That’s what it means to really taste the sweetness of a New Year.
May we each merit being inscribed and sealed for life. May we all have a happy and sweet New Year.
Shanah tovah u’metukah, and Gmar hatimah tovah.