Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

 

MASKS

You might say that we all have a bit of the con artist in us. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; the last thing I want to do is accuse my readers of being in any way deliberately deceitful or duplicitous! And yet, every time we express anything other than the exact truth that we feel inside, aren’t we in a sense pulling the wool over other people’s eyes?

From the first time a child blurts, “I’m sorry” to get himself out of trouble, even if he’s not actually consumed with remorse… what he’s doing is putting on a mask. As we grow older and become aware of the gap that exists between our inner self and our outward one, we continually learn to hide certain things from public scrutiny. What are those things?

The range of reasons for wearing the mask is a broad one. Let’s start at the most negative end of the scale: genuine con artists. Salesmen of spurious stocks. Purveyors of Ponzi schemes. Dispensers of quack remedies and promoters of get-rich-quick programs which purport to line your pockets with gold but end up robbing you of it. People who make a living by skating on the slippery edge of the truth. In the interest of self-interest, they throw truth out the window and stock up on instruments of deceit. They wear the mask for all the wrong reasons.

Some wear the mask for reasons also having to do with self-interest, though not in as dramatically harmful a way for society at large. For example, when we present ourselves as more intelligent or talented or capable than we are in order to secure a position or land a job. Whether from ego considerations or practical ones, there are times when we want to climb a ladder that may be just a little out of our league. Socially, too, we may be tempted to conceal our true selves for the sake of fitting in.

It’s the responsibility of those in charge of appointing those positions or offering those jobs to weed out the less qualified candidates. To peek behind the masks which people wear to promote themselves and achieve their ambitions. As for our social masks, some eventually slip off as we grow more comfortable with those around us, while others may stay in place as we hide ourselves out of pain, fear, or shame.

I remember an old song about a lonely woman who, when she left her house, wore “a face that she kept in a jar by the door.” This evocative image perfectly describes a person who puts on a smile and a British-style stiff upper lip when in public, while suffering pangs of deeply painful solitude when alone at home. Anyone who smiles when in pain can be said to wear this kind of mask.

Fear can also make a person wear a disguise, for self-protection. From the child who will do or say whatever it takes to placate an angry or abusive parent, to the wife who does the same with an angry or abusive husband, to the employee who toadies up to his domineering boss in a desperate bid to hold onto his job, fear can rob us of our ability to show who we really are. Acting from an instinct for self-preservation, we feel impelled to wear a mask to help us conform to whatever image the person in power has in mind for us.

Shame is probably the most prevalent reason for covering up our true selves. When we feel inadequate and insecure, what could be more natural than trying to hide those inadequacies? Even the most confident among us tend to meet strangers, especially prospective shidduch partners, with our outward personas firmly in place, ready to be dropped as soon as we feel safe enough to reveal what lies beneath, those tender, hidden places that only those closest to us are privileged to see. Even after marriage, it can take time until a couple feels secure enough in the other’s affection and good opinion to really rip off the mask.

 

A Positive Tool

Discounting extreme examples, don’t we all wear masks at times? In social settings, we try to look and speak as others expect us to. In relationships, we often find ourselves saying things that may not reflect our inner reality. We label such things “tact” or “diplomacy,” and frequently they are the correct path to take. Chazal teach, for example, that one may distort the truth for the sake of shalom bayis.

Yaakov Avinu personifies the middah of “emes,” yet there were times in his life when he had to resort to subterfuge or artifice. Urged on by his righteous mother, Rivka Imeinu, Yaakov disguised himself so that he might receive his father’s blessings. Later, his father-in-law Lovon’s deceitful practices forced Yaakov into strategic moves of his own, in accordance with the idea that one should “act toward a crooked person with crookedness.”

Perhaps the quintessential character in Tanach who wore the mask is, of course, the valiant Esther Hamalkah. Coached by Mordechai, from the moment she was taken away to the palace she set herself to conceal the most significant and meaningful part of who she was: her Jewishness. Mordechai sensed that a time would come when Esther’s hidden identity would have a part to play for the benefit of Klal Yisroel.

So, Esther hid. She hid the fact that she was a Jew, and she hid her repulsion for the man who had made her his queen. With sublime grace, she wore the mask that has become the symbol for Purim down the ages. A mask shared, as it were, by Hashem Himself, Who concealed His presence and His hidden machinations throughout the Purim story…  and Who continues to conceal Himself through this long and bitter exile.

When the time was ripe, Esther found the perfect moment to tear away the mask she wore and reveal her true identity. In doing so, she changed the fates of all her brothers and sisters scattered throughout the vast Persian empire.

When the time is ripe, Hakadosh Boruch Hu has promised to reveal Himself as well. In doing so, He will gather in all the scattered remnants of His people, wherever they may be, and lead us into the light.

When that happens, all the lies, deceit and distortion that has marred human history will finally be put to rest. And His Truth will fill the world!

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