Note: This article appeared in the November issue of The Scroll.
Masks. We are all wearing them. There are all kinds: three-ply surgical, KN95, N95, cloth (with and without filter), designer, bandana, etc. Masks are in nowadays. They’re all the rage. You can even get designer masks now. Like a sports team? Get a mask with their name and logo.Supporting a candidate? They got masks too. Companies and unions are making up custom masks for their employees and members. Yep, everywhere you look someone is wearing some kind of mask.
And, that’s a good thing. In today’s day of COVID, masks are a way to protect ourselves and others from the virus.
But the masks we wear to cover our mouths and noses are not the only ones we wear. These are only the masks that are clearly visible, that we have only started wearing because of COVID and our need to protect ourselves and the ones we love. But, there are other masks we wear, that we wear all the time and have been wearing for as long as we can remember.
We wear masks so that we can show the “us” we want to show in any given situation. Think about it. Do you behave the same at home as you do in Shule? How about when you are at a wedding or another formal event? How would you act if you were meeting the governor of your state or the President of the United States? If you are like most people, you are always cognizant of your environment and your behavior adjusts accordingly. This is not being phony, this is basic human psychology. We all know that there are different standards of behavior, different expectations, that depend on where we are, and we act accordingly. There is nothing wrong with that.
But it does raise a question. If we were to strip away our masks, who are we really? Do we really know?
This is a really difficult question. I would wager that many of us are so used to our masks, and rely on them so much, that we may not know where the mask ends and where we begin. The masks become so much a part of us that, to a degree, we become the mask. But, who we really are never goes away and, sooner or later, the real us will show through.
Where am I going with this? Well, it seems to me that just like we get to choose the masks we wear, we can choose who we are underneath it all. That is the essence of what learning Torah is all about; using Hashem’s guidance to determine who we are at the core and use that basis for all of our “situational” masks.
The Talmud teaches us (Bava Batra, 16a) “Job sought to exempt the world from judgement…” He said to G-d, “you created people who are righteous and who are wicked…” Job was telling G-d that he created us as we are. Since he is the programmer, and we are the computers, how can he blame us when we are acting according to his innate instructions? Job’s friends answered that Hashem also created the Torah which is the means by which we may adjust our personalities, rework our behavioral core, and rise above our base programming.
But Torah is so huge, how can we ever really accomplish this herculean task? Torah is compared to an ocean: one can swim the ocean their entire lives and never reach the other side. But, and this has been my experience, whatever learning you can accomplish is to your benefit. I have rarely sat and learned and not walked away with something positive that I have been able to put to use in my everyday life. I cannot count the number of times I have quoted Torah to my Portuguese-American boss (who, I am sure, has Jewish DNA but that is another thing) to explain my approach to an issue.
In today’s day and age, there are a plethora of sources that make Torah available and accessible to people with all levels of learning expertise. Mesorah Publications, the publishers of the Artscroll Torah Library, has produced a huge library of Sefarim and books that we can get at most Judaica stores. We use their Siddurim and Chumashim at Shaarey Israel and they are excellent. Not only do they provide interesting and understandable commentary, the font they use in printing is very easy to read. (I’ll let you in on a secret. During the High Holidays, I always use an Artscroll Machzor, as opposed to the Birnbaum used by the congregation, because the lettering is so much easier for me to read.) Artscroll has complete sets of Chumashim with a wide variety of translated commentary, Mishnah, Talmud and much, much more.
There is a huge amount of material on line as well. Not just in the form of the printed word but in the form of audio and video lectures by great rabbis who can offer more insights than you can shake a stick at. (I’ll let you in on another secret: As Rabbi Weinbach and I were preparing for our COVID affected High Holiday services, we paid a lot of attention to responsa by Rabbi Herschel Schachter published on Yutorah.org.) There are great websites like Chabad.org, Aish.com and more available at the touch of a keyboard. One word of caution about learning Torah from online websites: check with the Rabbi before you rely on one to ensure that what you are watching comes from reliable sources. There are many websites out there that purport to teach Torah but are shills for proselytizing organizations like Jews for Jesus.
At Shaarey Israel, you have many opportunities to learn Torah. Rabbi Weinbach sends out emails and videos on Torah topics and offers a weekly class that is filled with fascinating insights. I have a weekly Talmud learning group that is both fun and, I hope, informative. (By the way, if you are interested in joining my Talmud learning group which currently meets virtually on Wednesday nights at 9:30, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be glad to get you the Zoom link.)
Psychologists like to say that our personalities are fixed at an early age. If, by that, they mean that we stop growing, learning, and changing, I disagree with them. I may not have their degrees and certificates but I have seen how learning and being open to the ways of Torah can positively affect a person. We should never stop learning and growing. As King Solomon says, “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this is the essence of mankind. (Eccl 12:13)”
Postscript: This article will appear in the November issue of The Scroll. No doubt this year’s Thanksgiving will look very different because of the restrictions we have to place on ourselves due to COVID. I have a few suggestions. First, you can use technology to virtually join with your family. Zoom, Google Meet, Skype and Whatsapp are just a few free technologies you can use to see your family and have a virtual Thanksgiving dinner. Second, while the restrictions are unpleasant, remember that they are both necessary and temporary. This pandemic will pass, as they all do, and life will find a new normal. In the meantime, try to emotionally isolate as little as possible. No, I am not suggesting you go out and ignore COVID safeguards, but we do have more ways to stay in touch today than ever before. Use them. Reach out to your family, friends, congregation and community. There is a great deal of love out there, all you have to do is tap into it and add your own to it.
Chana and I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. Always remember, even in the midst of this pandemic, we still have much to be thankful for.