On Masks, Prayer, and the Human Soul

On Friday night, January 8, 2021, for the first time in my life, I prayed to my Creator. In a vacuum it’s a strange statement to make for me because I’m an Orthodox Jew who “prays” three times a day. But I never really knew what that meant until that Friday night. Here’s my story of how it happened.

I live in Israel, where masks are, technically, the law. I do not wear a mask because I cannot breathe with a mask on, and as a human being, I have a right to breathe. Thankfully, this is also true according to Israeli mask law, which you can find here. I have been insulted, I have been threatened, and I have been accused of trying to kill the elderly, and I have even been detained by the Israeli police for refusing to put one on, insisting I have a right to breathe, period. But I have never, not once, been ticketed for not wearing a mask. I suspect this is because the police know that I will challenge it, and I will win.

More deeply, when I see a mask it’s like a gut punch to my soul. This is perhaps why I personally cannot breathe with a mask on. In Hebrew, the word for soul, Neshama, is the same as the word for breath – Neshima. It has the same root. According to Genesis, when God gave the first man life, he breathed life into his face. Life is breath. It is a Divine kiss from the Creator.

To me, what masks are – their entire essence – is pure dehumanization. You order someone to cover his face, and you are telling him to cover his humanity, to hide his soul. If you cannot see someone’s face you cannot see what they’re feeling or thinking. You can’t see them smile or frown. They become blank. You can still say words to people, but you can’t really communicate.

I know dehumanization when I see it. I know it well. Whether it’s a yellow Star of David on my chest, a tattooed number on my arm, stripping me of all clothing and shaving my head, or a mask right across my soul to muzzle me like a dog, it’s all the same thing. You are less than human. You are not a person. You are now simply a vector for disease.

Israel is on its third lockdown, our children are becoming progressively emptier, people are committing suicide from the loss of their lives, their families and their livelihoods, and Israel is supposedly “leading the world” in a mass vaccination experiment as our Prime Minister promised to share vaccine data with Pfizer in order to get the supply. No, I am not an antivaxxer. My kids are vaccinated with the standard complement. But I know what this is. This is mass experimentation on human lives and I will not be part of it.

On that Sabbath when I really prayed to God for the first time, the Torah portion happened to be the first portion of the book of Exodus. In Hebrew, the name of the book is Shmot, or simply Names. “These are the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt,” the book begins. Then it lists all their names. Why? We already know their names from Genesis. The answer is that the book begins by emphasizing their humanity. Their individual names as people. They are about to be the victims of vastly expanding state power and mass murder. They are about to be gradually enslaved to the point where they will be forced by the state to drown their own baby boys in the Nile. But they all have names for the love of God. Do not forget that, begins the book of Names.

I am working on a serious personal project right now. It is a libertarian commentary on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, gathering all relevant liberty sources from the medieval Rabbinic commentators. I’ve been stuffing notes in the margins of my holy books. I am calling the work “Liberty on the Tablets”, or in Hebrew, “Herut Al HaLuchot”. My books are now covered with beautiful highlighting in different colors.  One color for points of economics, principles of ownership and property and such. Another color for issues of State power and points of political philosophy. It’s going well, thank God.

In this portion, I came across a hauntingly beautiful comment by Nachmanides. He notes, among other commentators, the peculiarity of Exodus 2:1-2. The decree to murder all Israelite baby boys is now in force at this point. The verses read, “A man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, and she saw that he was good so she hid him for three months.”

What’s the peculiarity exactly? Simply that this is about the birth of Moses, and Moses was the third child of Yocheved and Amram of Levi, not the first. Miriam was the first born. Aaron the second. Moses was the youngest. So on the face of it, this verse doesn’t make any sense. The simple explanation, the pshat as the Rabbis call it, is that the births of Miriam and Aaron are simply skipped here because they are not relevant to the story. Yocheved and Amram were married beforehand, and this is not exactly purely chronological.

But there is another possibility, a deeper explanation, the so-called exegetical drash. That is, this is actually speaking of the remarriage of Yocheved and Amram. What happened, say the Rabbis, is that Yocheved and Amram initially separated in despair when the government decree to murder all baby boys came into force. They couldn’t bear the risk of having another baby and so they got a divorce.

Here is where Nachmanides comes in and quotes the Talmud. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah tells the story that Miriam, the oldest, was the one that insisted her parents get back together and have another kid. Miriam was a prophetess, and she foresaw that their next baby would save Israel. But not only did she insist. She made a small wedding party for her parents. She made a wedding canopy, and they went through the wedding ceremony all over again. And Miriam and her then two-year-old brother Aaron, too young yet to understand what was even going on, danced and danced with happiness around their parents in the midst of this terrifying and crushing despair and fear.

Because of this defiant party and this happiness, Israel was redeemed, says the Talmud. I highlighted that one with two colors earlier in the week, thinking of defiant dancing and parties and happiness in the midst of evil lockdowns against life itself.

I have a tradition in my family that I dance with my kids to a Sabbath song Jews sing on Friday night called Lecha Dodi, after I come home from synagogue. It’s a poem about welcoming the Sabbath as if she is a beautiful bride and we are all getting married to her. It is probably the most famous poem about the Sabbath ever written.

So last Friday night, I leave my house to go to an outdoor Minyan, a prayer quorum. I do not wear a mask, of course, so I head to the only place where I can sit and pray with other Jews without being harassed about my exposed face, my exposed breath, my exposed soul. It’s an outdoor quorum of Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic Jews. We are not allowed to pray inside anymore. I am not a Chabad Hasid, but these are the only ones who leave me alone unmasked and don’t give me dirty looks, God bless them.

One Chabadnik gets up and starts giving a Dvar Torah, a point on the Torah portion. This Jew, I notice, was not wearing a mask either. He asks a simple question. “Who were the ones throwing the babies into the Nile?” Good question. Who, actually, physically, picked up these newborn baby boys and threw them into the Nile river to die? He quoted the Lubavitcher Rebbe of course, who said that it was the fathers who did the horrible deed.

Why the fathers? Simple. They were making a logical calculation. Either they kill their own sons, or their whole family gets murdered by the government. You can’t really fault them. It makes sense. The same thing is happening now. We are all killing our children with these lockdowns, he says. Sitting them in front of screens all day, depriving them of life, killing them slowly, because we do not want to get fined and shamed by the Israeli taskmasters.

Until someone puts his foot down and says “Enough!” this will not stop. And I thought back to Miriam, insisting her parents get remarried and have another baby, and the defiant wedding party she threw her parents, and how Moses was born. Enough. I thanked him for his words. They were beautiful. We then begin the Friday night service.  A few minutes later, we are about to begin the Lecha Dodi poem about the Sabbath bride.

Now, there happens to be a man who lives on that very street we are praying on. This guy is very extreme about masks. He dresses as a religious Jew, in Sabbath clothing with a hat and long coat kaputteh and the whole shebang. (I wear a black leather jacket.) This man calls the police on anyone he can identify who is not wearing a mask. I know him. He knows me. He can identify me. As Lecha Dodi is about to begin, I see this guy walking down the street, eyeing us. Most in the quorum are wearing masks. Then he sees me. I am not. We make eye contact. And Lecha Dodi begins. The wedding song I dance to with my kids about the Sabbath bride, begins.

I’m not a big dancer, not in public at least. All of the sudden, almost as if not even by my own volition, I feel my legs starting to take steps towards this man. I cannot stop them. Step after step, my legs pull me toward him inexorably. I do not know what I’m doing exactly. I have no plan. Our eyes are still locked in eye contact. I cannot tell what he’s thinking, of course, because he has a mask on.

Then I start singing as Lecha Dodi goes on. He starts walking along in the middle of the street. So I follow him, singing. And then I start jumping. And dancing in circles around him at a strict 2-meter radius so as not to invade his personal space, while singing Lecha Dodi as he walks down the street. I know everyone is looking at me, and everyone else is singing, too. I’m clapping, jumping as high as I can, singing joyously along with everyone else cheering me on, though I am the only one dancing around him. I must have done 10 laps around the guy at least. A furious, ecstatic wedding dance and I just cannot stop myself.

He gets to his house and I break off, sitting down in a chair on the sidewalk, out of breath. Lecha Dodi is over and people shake my hand and pat my back. I’m wondering whether I did the right thing. I’m having doubts now. What happens now?

Then the next part of the evening service begins. This part is called Ma’ariv. There is a part within it called the Amidah, or “The Standing” where the worshipper begins by taking three steps forward into the presence of God, and prays silently, feet together, with everyone else in the group, taking three steps back when finished. During the Amidah, one is forbidden to talk or move or even signal to anyone. The Amidah is a conversation with God and must be completed without any interruption.

Ma’ariv begins, so we have only a few minutes until the Amidah begins. A few minutes pass and I see a police car turn on to the street. That mask guy, dressed as a religious Jew, obviously broke the Sabbath to call the police on me. A religious Jew can only break the Sabbath when lives are literally at stake, mind you.

Right before the policeman gets out of the car, the few people without masks quickly slap them on. Except for me. I never carry one. I know exactly what’s about to happen now.

He walks towards me. He’s about 30 seconds away from me now. And we have about 30 seconds until the Amidah begins. My heart is thumping. Did I do the right thing? Or did I do something stupid? I lock eyes with the policeman. He reaches me. 15 seconds.

“Put a mask on,” he says.

I nod no.

“Corona!” he yells.

I stare at him.

“I’m talking to you!” he rasps. 10 seconds. I keep staring. Heart hammering.

“Then move to the side,” the cop says again, a little quieter this time. “Don’t be next to anyone.” The guy next to me moves away. I stand completely still, staring the cop down.

And then I felt what I can only describe as a Divine shield falling all around me, protecting me, blocking the cop completely out. I knew at that moment that I had done, and was doing, exactly the right thing.

The leader of the prayer group then chants, “Amen,” signaling that the Amidah will now begin. I take one last look at the cop. I close my eyes. And I take three steps forward into the presence of the God of Israel. And for the very first time in my life, I pray.

When I am done praying the Amidah, I open my eyes. The cop is gone. Tears of happiness and relief are streaming down my exposed, unmasked face.

Everyone, all human beings with a soul, I call on you, I implore you. If you are feeling dehumanized and you cannot breathe with a mask on, take it off, as the law explicitly allows. Do not wear that yellow star like a slave. Take your masks off. Show them you are a human being, that you have a face, that you have a name, that you have a soul, and that they will not succeed in destroying your humanity. And if you are on lockdown and you can’t take it anymore, get up. Get out there as far as you can. And dance!

About the Author
Rafi Farber is the publisher of The End Game Investor, a daily market commentary focusing on precious metals and monetary analysis in a post-Covid world.