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eJudaism: Masks, Faces, Souls (High Holy Days)

08/12/2021 04:11:59 PM


Michael Greenfield

There’s something comforting about hiding behind a mask, and there’s something distressing about not being seen – the pandemic has made that all too clear. But none of us were strangers to the mask which is why the Jewish calendar reminds us to start taking them off today.

Today is the 1st of Elul, the month that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and it’s the month in which we each prepare ourself for the High Holy Days. If we do it right (I haven’t yet, but I’m an eternal optimist) then the Days of Awe are a breeze with the hard work – unmasking, for example – already behind us.

I’m not talking about COVID masks, of course. Wearing those saves lives. The other masks, the ones we create to protect ourselves, create distance between us and the people around us, maybe even distance us from who we’re hoping to become. During Elul, Jewish tradition asks us to shed those barriers, to uncover our true faces and, by extension, to expose our souls – at least for our own inspection, if not for others.

Most human beings grapple with some version of, “Will people still like me if they truly understand me?” In response, Judaism offers Elul – the month-long process of looking at our own weaknesses, our own failures, and recognizing in them something of the human condition. The point is not to condemn ourselves but to realize that if as many as 82% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at some point – the notion that everyone else around you has it together in a way that you don’t – well, we might be wrong about the everyone else.

So what to do? Try dropping the mask, look at the face behind it, see some piece of the soul – with all its blemishes. It’s uncomfortable at best, but it can lead to transformation. To paraphrase Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, So you failed today. Nu? You’re a person, what did you expect? But for as long as you have a tomorrow, you still have another chance. Rabbi Nachman? Also an eternal optimist.

The wisdom of Elul teaches us that vulnerability makes us stronger. When our authentic selves encounter authenticity in another, the space between us is filled with holiness. That holiness can carry you into the New Year. Embrace vulnerability with open arms.

Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784