Dovid M. Cohen
Rabbi Congregation Ohr Torah-N. Woodmere

World Mask: Re-Thinking A Mask In a Pandemic

Praying with a Mask

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.  It is a story of the illusion of an Emperor wearing invisible garments.  It takes a child to reveal the truth. The emperor is really naked, he has no clothes.

Life was a dizzying game of musical chairs until the music stopped and Covid-19 left many without clothing, confronting unpleasant truths.  The exposure cut deep as the pandemic snuffed out lives and humanity was forced to take stock.

The pandemic came full throttle on the heels of the Jewish holiday Purim.  Purim is a festival commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, a Persian official who was planning to kill all Jews.

It is a day accented by revelry and celebration.  A masquerade with adherents dressing up in colorful costumes.

The book of the Hebrew canon that tells the Purim story is called the scroll of Esther.  The Hebrew word for scroll is “Megilla,” which means to reveal. The root of the word Esther means hiding.  The challenge of the festival is to unearth or reveal a G-d who is hiding. He may even be hiding in plain sight. The opportunity is to find his guiding spirit in what appears to the naked eye as the natural course.

The Jewish community celebrated this masquerade on the eve of the pandemic.  The message was not lost upon us.  We often live our lives behind a mask.  We can hide from the best versions of ourselves.  We dress up in imaginary clothes.  We hide but G-d also hides from us.  It is a sophisticated game of hide and seek. G-d at times shakes the world to ensure that we stop and seek.

In the Jewish faith, we are taught that G-d resides in the houses of worship.

Though his presence is palpable always and everywhere, his spirit is most intensely felt in houses of prayer with a quorum of spiritual seekers.

For months on end, communities accustomed to engaging G-d in tandem were forced to embark on the divine encounter alone.

This pivot was excruciating and jarring.  The place always associated with vitality, energy, friendship and spirituality was suddenly and unexpectedly associated with danger and foreboding.

The Jewish tradition also has a Fall festival known as Sukkos.

We leave our comfortable homes and enter a temporary hut for a week-long respite.  We eat and some even sleep in these flimsy huts that we call a Sukka.  It is an expression of our trust in G-d after the completion of the intense encounter of the High Holiday period.

If it rains or gets extremely hot in this festival period, we are instructed to vacate the Sukka.  G-d doesn’t demand that we sit in discomfort during the festival.

When this happens, there is a gnawing feeling of a bad omen.  That G-d is displeased with us and doesn’t desire this unique intimate encounter.

Similarly, to those spiritually sensitive, there has been an underlying discomfort the last few months.

Our relationship with G-d has been breached as we have been exiled from G-d’s earthly residence.

Thankfully, over the last few weeks re-entering houses of worship has begun.  It is a slow process.

In my community, we pray in the synagogue parking lot under a tent to provide the safest prayer venue possible.  Like the Sukka, it is hopefully a temporary location until we are ready to go back inside.

The irony is this journey back is bookended with a mask.  Not the mask of Purim with which began the pandemic but medical grade masks to ensure the dreaded virus cannot spread.

Frankly, it is very difficult to pray in these masks.  It is uncomfortable and has been met with resistance, malign and consternation.

However, it is appropriate we wear these masks as a stark reminder of how we arrived at this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place.

Before we unmask, we must do the requisite seeking to recalibrate our lives.  To notice clearly the true reality behind the masquerading that was pre-Coved life.

Humanity must look closely at the clothes it is wearing. As Thomas Chalke said in 1713, ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see.’

About the Author
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, NY. He is also a Senior Relationship Officer at Yachad. His book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016) is available at www.rabbidovidmcohen.com. Check out his Podcast The JPP: Jewish Philanthropy Podcast http://jewishphilantropypodcast.libsyn.com/ and his lectures at https://www.torahanytime.com/#/speaker?l=1081.
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