Mask Sermon by chenboying

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									                     “The Un-masked Man” – Kol Nidrei

We recite many traditional blessings today:
                              by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

we say Shehecheyanu for reaching a new and momentous holy day,
we recite the blessing over the tallit,
we add special words to the Amidah prayer.
But there is another blessing that can be recited, not because of the day, but because
of the gathering. It is the blessing traditionally recited upon seeing 100,000 Jews
together. Today, we use it to give thanks for the large group gathered here and for
the millions of Jews gathered the world over. Please say the beracha with me:
Baruch Adonai Elohyenu Melekh Ha’olam Chacham Harazim. Blessed are you God,
ruler of the universe, in your wisdom, you know what is hidden and secret.

You witness this many people together in a room, and you begin to wonder about
the sum and its parts.

Imagine all the secret longings this room contains.

Imagine all the unspoken history: all the private tales of falling madly in love; all the
embarrassing (and thankfully hidden) mistakes made in relationships.

Statistics tell us—if we mirror a random sample of the American population—that
14% of us suffered some serious form of abuse in childhood. Consider the weight of
the childhood secrets in this room. And we all strive so hard to look “fine.”

Tonight, some people hold the secret that that they are pregnant; others, that they
are trying to be. Still other families have weathered miscarriage or abortion.

Imagine collecting just from the last year, the combined heartache of this room—
the major losses suffered: the death of a parent, the ending of a marriage, the

collapse of a dream. We know our neighbors, and we don’t know them. No wonder
we call God, chacham harazim, wise knower of what is hidden.

And even more mysterious than the obscure past is the unknown future.

This hall contains secret aspirations, countless desires and plans for the coming year
that people are too scared – or too proud – to utter.

In the normal course of events, we just try to be and look OK. To put a good, and a
normal, face on everything.

It becomes obvious when we gather in such great numbers, but it is equally true

Look around. As many faces as you see, that’s how many masks you see.

         In fact, most of us wear layers of masks: there may be
         one mask mostly for strangers,
         and under that--one for our friends,
         and under that-- one for our mate.
         All of us protect and obscure our secret selves.

Some of us wear masks of toughness to cover up our weakness.
And some of us wear masks of weakness to cover up our rage.
Some of us wear masks of incompetence to cover up our own laziness. We project to
the world that we aren’t able, when really we just aren’t willing.

With all the hiding that we do and all the masks that we wear,
is it any wonder, that it is hard to feel known in the world?
Is it any wonder that we find it hard to know and understand one another?

We become so proficient at wearing masks that it is hard even to know ourselves.
You may begin by trying to guard private issues and foibles from prying eyes, but
you end up hiding the truth even from yourself.

I am working on a book these days with my friend and teacher, Sam Christensen. We
are writing about the spirituality of self-perception.
Sam noticed an important technical problem that stands in the way of most people
knowing themselves. That is: each of us has a perspective on ourselves shared by no
other person in the universe.
You see yourself from inside the masks, looking out.
But the rest of the world sees you from the outside, trying to peer in.
The community develops a consensus about you, based on a external perspective
you can’t know directly.
And people form that consensus without the benefit of your internal perspective,
which they can’t know directly.
Only God sees both perspectives—the complete picture of who we are, from inside
and out.

It says in the liturgy, zocher kol hanishkachot “God you remember all that has been
forgotten.” I have always interpreted that as a statement of awe and foreboding.
Some people may take it as a threat. But it can also, and ultimately, be a great

What are you hiding, and from whom are you hiding it?! God knows all the secrets
already! God sees you behind the masks, and God loves you.

Still, on an everyday basis, we feel vulnerable to outside judgments -- we, who are
unable to see ourselves from the outside. We feel unsafe because we have only
imperfect means of knowing and monitoring how other people perceive us.

Therefore, we try to control the whole process. To show only what looks good and to
hide the rest. We layer the masks. But usually we can’t control perceptions.
Ironically, it is sometimes exactly what we are trying to hide that we end up
displaying the most.

During the High Holidays we cede some of the control—control over the opinions of
others that we don’t really have anyway.

During the days of awe, we stop trying to look good, in an effort to actually be good.

That generally means taking off some masks… peeling away some
pretense…removing the facade to find our authentic selves.

This season asks a lot of people. Repentance requires enormous vulnerability. You
stand naked and defenseless before someone when you say, “I was wrong. I am

But I have a secret for you: You stand naked and defenseless anyway. Masks are
temporary. Eventually, people see through them. Eternally, God, the knower of
hidden things, sees through them. When you examine your own life, even you, the
proverbial last to know, sees through them.

A famous teaching asks, “Why is the formal name of today’s holiday Yom
HaKippurim - The Day of Atonements?” Because it’s a pun. Yom—Kepurim. It’s a day
like Purim.

Now that seems crazy.
On Purim, we make a carnival. On Yom Kippur, we are at our most solemn.
On Purim, we feast. On Yom Kippur, we fast.
On Purim, we remember the sins of our enemies.
On Yom Kippur, we examine our own sins.
What do these two holidays possibly have in common?
The answer is: they have masks in common.
On Purim, you put them on.
On Yom Kippur, you take them off.

[Note to colleagues: this was the year of Marcel Marceau’s final concert tour, but I think the

I saw an astounding performance. Maybe some of you have seen it, too. It was a
example still holds.]

night with Marcel Marceau.

Marceau performed a series of impressive mime pieces, including one entitled “The
Masked Man.”

He did the well-known exercise of sweeping his hand over his face and changing
characters. It is as if he put on a mask, so thoroughly was his faced transformed. He
went from crying clown to laughing baby to befuddled grandfather, in a series of
quick and clear and wildly impressive changes.
And he was such a master of this art that when his hand was over this nose, the eyes
had a new expression, and the mouth held the old one.

And that is about where we stand on Kol Nidrei night:
your eyes have seen a new vision of who you want to be,
but your mouth is still speaking your old self.

In the final moments of Marceau’s performance, a fellow mime crossed the stage
with a sign saying “The Unmasked Man.”

Marcel Marceau stood on stage, in full white-face make-up
no longer putting on a mask,

no longer a mime,
no longer a performer.
He was not even Marcel Marceau anymore.
He was not a man.
He stood on stage a pure soul,
still and open and vulnerable, willing to be seen.
This soul looked out through eyes so transparent, so unmasked, that it reached to
the last row of the last balcony.
It was humanity on stage.

And in the theater, holding thousands of other souls, there was a distinct hush and a
stillness, and then people, including me, began to weep.

We wept because of the bravery of it and the beauty of it.
And, no doubt, some people were weeping because they couldn’t be sure that they
would take off their masks, before their own curtain goes down and the music plays
them off life’s stage.

And then the lights went out, because it’s the end of the performance.
Because once you have seen that, there is nothing left to see.
This year, I have been witness to many people who finally and bravely, revealed a
mask and the self underneath it. These were people who feared there was
something ugly about them, that might be rejected. But they took the risk.

He has lived with a need to check locks and guard against germs to a debilitating

degree. Well, he began to tell some people what he suffered with. He expected
disapproval, but he got support. Instead of thinking him weak for his compulsions,
people were amazed at his strength in dealing with them.

Alopecia—medical condition in which clumps of hair fall out. She has hidden her

condition, worn a wig, had injections to make her eyebrows grow, and she has felt a
lot of shame around it.

Went to a conference for alopecia, didn’t wear her wig—and felt free.

No one on the subway to and fro cringed or judged her. In fact, a few people told her
she looked good and smooth.
Of course, she can go back to wearing a wig if she wants. It’s her choice. But now the
wig is just a wig.
It’s a fashion statement—not a mask.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION—not everyone accepted them. Not everyone embraced

them for the beauty of their truth. But more people did than they expected.
I have one friend who was particularly worried about coming out to his parents.
His father said,” Don’t you think we suspected? And don’t you know we love you?”

You won’t be safe everywhere. You won’t be embraced everywhere.
But the more you can function as an unmasked person,
the more you will encounter people who can love you
for the person you are behind the mask.

I think of Princess Diana, who died this past year.
[NOTE to colleagues: again, this was especially timely when I wrote the sermon, but she is still

once of the most often “googled” people on the internet.]

Part of the reason she was so beloved was her willingness to unmask.—

She told the world:

“It looks like I have a fairy-tale existence, but the truth is that under this facade,
“I am a spurned wife.
“I suffer from bulimia.
“I have thrown myself down the stairs in misery and desperation.
“Much of the good that I do in the world, I do in order to feel needed.”

And far from rejecting her for it, people embraced her.

The opposite of keeping a secret is self-revelation.
“Revelation” is religious language—it refers to something holy, instructive, and

There is something lovable, and even charismatic, about casting off your mask, and
openly declaring who you are.
Philip Roth opens his novel Letting Go, with the forcible cracking of a mask.
A woman reads the letter of a stranger, learning everything about his relationship
with his parents, and his most private shame and confusion.
Then, in one terrible moment, he knows that she knows, and she knows that he
knows that she knows.
Roth writes in the voice of the man whose mask has been cracked

“ I was not sure whether to be offended or humiliated or relieved: for a moment I
managed to be all three. It actually seemed as though she had deliberately
challenged me with my secret—and at bottom I did not know if I really minded. The
worst part of certain secrets is their secrecy.”

Sometimes the sin lies not so much in what is hidden, but in the hiding itself.
Sin itself is a crust, a mask, that obscures your best self.

Some people are comforted by what I just said, and some people feel worse. Hang in.
I am one step ahead of you—I hope.

Some folks might say: “When you talk about embracing the unmasked, you are
pointing to medical conditions and personal history, sexual orientation and identity.
These are things for which people cannot and should not be blamed.

“What if my mask is covering a real sin, some evil deed I did, something of which I
deserve to feel ashamed?

“What if I have done something genuinely bad? What if I am afraid that my soul is

If these questions run through your mind, you are in the right place, because that is
what Yom Kippur is for.
We purify the sin with repentance. And repentance doesn’t consist of pillorying
yourself in the town square— but rather with
acknowledging your corruption,
unburying it,
unmasking it,
feeling the regret,
making the repair,
and resolving to make a different choice the next time.

Any of us who really, fully unmasks, must face something grievous. But as the
Yiddish saying goes,
Better the ugly truth than a beautiful lie.

We need to face what is ugly. At the same time, we should prepare ourselves to
discover hidden and unexpected beauty beneath our masks, as well.

For most people,
on the surface, in control,
is a nice, smiling face.
Underneath is a thick mask of pain.
That mask, in turn, hides some ugly faces of anger, rage, resentment, jealousy,
Beneath those faces is a thick layer of shame, which builds up over time.
Beneath all that, on the deepest level, is a something pure, shining, and good.

We can’t always get to it easily, but
under the mask that spruces up your identity,
And under your identity that is itself another mask,
And under all the roles and identities you present,
And under all the opinions you have about the masks and the roles,
rests a soul so pure that it both magnetizes and radiates love.

That’s a sure thing. Because you were created that way.
Elohai, Neshama Shenatath Bi Tehorah Hi—My God the soul you have planted in me
is pure.

If we are brave enough to go down through the layers of the sins and the masks that
cover them, the reward is that we meet the soul.
Your own, pure, shining soul.

Even given the reward, the demands of teshuvah, repentance, are such that
sometimes we would simply… rather… not.
We are afraid to trust that beauty lies beneath. So,
instead of plumbing the depths, dredging up difficulties and disappointments, we try
to cover our weaknesses so thoroughly that they will not soon surface. Hey, maybe
no one will notice.

It’s a strategy that we have all used at one time or another, but it has a high price.
Because then you really have to hide.
Then you can’t be open or vulnerable.
And whatever shame you have about your past deeds is continuously re-enforced,
because you say to yourself, consciously or subconsciously,
“Well, they respect me now;
they love me now;
they think they forgive me now;
but if they only knew….

Walter Anderson, a writer and sociologist, has a very reassuring answer to the
question, “What if they really knew?”
“I have had the wonderful opportunity to know many successful, prominent leaders,
the very people I thought didn’t worry as I did. Hundreds of times I’ve found myself
looking into their eyes, and asking the question that has caused me more worry than
any other: When it is dark and you are alone, do you ever say to yourself, what will I
do when they find out I’m me?”

“Now, here’s the thing,” Anderson says, “I have never failed to make a friend with
that question. And I have never failed to get a nod.”
What about those times when you take off your mask, and you get
hurt…humiliated… rejected for who you really are?

That’s the risk. We put everything on the line, because you cannot block out
rejection but remain open to love. Love and repentance require that you be
vulnerable. There are no guarantees.
But I believe you gain more from unmasking than you can ever lose.

A few years ago, I suffered what I would have called, at the time, a public
humiliation. I wasn’t renewed for a fellowship. I remain the only person in the
history of this fellowship not to be renewed.
There were reasons for it, which I might defensively wish to tell you. But I’ll resist
because that’s beside the point here.

The point is that when I found out, I hid in my room for three days. I cried, and I
imagined the world would reject me, now that I was without the impressive mask of
a successful academic.
In fact, as is often the case, it turned out for my good. I got a much better fellowship
in the end.

But the greatest gift to come out of the rejection, was something my sister said to
me, when I was still hiding in the room, afraid to face what people would think:

She said, “The people who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care.”

In that sense, when you take off a mask, there is nothing, really, at risk.
We said Yom Kepurim, today is like Purim. The name Esther means hidden.
Throughout most of the book, she hides. She hides her identity, her religion, her
deeper reason for being in the palace.
In our own lives, there are times when we need to wear a mask for self- protection
or for the protection of others. We need to wear masks for the sake of
professionalism and, sometimes, kindness.
Everybody needs masks; everybody has masks. The important thing is that you, in
fact, have them, and that they don’t have you. You must be willing, under the right
circumstances, to discard them.

For Esther, as for everyone, there came a time when hiding, though it protected her
in one way, was going to cause insupportable harm. She risked her own life by
revealing herself as a Jew to the King, but she risked the entire Jewish people by not
revealing herself…

At a certain point, it becomes more dangerous to hide, than not to hide.

And when Esther crossed that boundary, she said, “ve-kha’asher avadeti, avaditi”
which means: “If I perish I perish.” Or, in a midrashic translation, “If I lose this, then
I lose this.”

No “THIS” is worth your life, your peace of mind, your ability to be yourself, openly
and freely. If I lose by revealing myself, then I lose. But I lose more by hiding behind
my mask.

Do what Esther did— face reality, weigh your choice, fast, pray for courage, get the
support of people who really matter to you. Then: unmask.

In some other synagogue, in some other town, some other rabbi is arguing tonight
for discretion and modesty and privacy—and rightly so. If that’s the drash for you,
you know it. If that is what you need to hear, please assert that balance for yourself.
But the vast majority of us wear our polite, discreet, modest mask all too well. It is
so safe --and so lonely.

If you never unmask, eventually you lose for sure—
from behind a mask which covers that essential loss with a fake win, or a false
indifference, or a manufactured stoicism.

“But what will I do when they find out I’m me?” Now, there is an exciting question
and adventure for the new year.

Unmask and find out.
Discover the beauty and the purity of the soul that lies beneath all the masks.
Ka’asher avadeti, avadeti. Take a chance on openness, on vulnerability, on honesty
of the most profound sort. If you lose, you lose. But how can you lose? The people
who care don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t care.

                           Notes on a MEDITATION
                 to accompany “The Un-masked Man” Drash
I often use guided meditations to close my derashot, as a way of helping people
                  to personalize and reflect upon the message.

Imagine a palace, a beautiful destination on a hill, ahead of you.

You start moving there, and as you get closer, you realize it is not just a beautiful

site but a holy one. You are on a pilgrimage.

Enter the courtyard through a beautiful, open gate.

This is a courtyard built for travelers

Each person who arrives gets a beautiful basin, with fresh, healing water, and an

antique mirror above it

Walk up to your basin – notice the details of it and of your mirror. Feel the water,

mayim chayim.

Look at the face in the mirror—and see the mask you wear most regularly in the


Is it a clown mask—a caricature of happiness because you use humor to


Maybe your most-used outward mask is the face of a victim – with frequent tears

and sorrow.

See mask. Feel its weight and texture. Consider how it has been of service.

Now wash it off. Let it melt down. Feel it melt off. Feel yourself lighter, cleaner.

Look in your mirror and see a mask that you wear with the person you are

closest to.

Maybe it’s the mask of disapproval—frowning. You will be safe if they always

owe you.

Maybe you wear a mask of independence—made of cool porcelain. It looks

aloof because you don’t want to admit that you need them.

Maybe you wear a mask of jealousy—green--because underneath you are so


What do you see? Feel the weight and texture of the mask. Consider how it has

been of service.

What are you now willing remove, to feel lighter and cleaner?

Wash. Feel now a greater openness, a barrier removed.

Now look in the mirror and see a mask that you wear when you approach God.

Mask of cynicism--hard, impenetrable metal

Mask of your parents—coming to God in whatever way they did;

Mask of a child—look and see how old—this is the age when you stopped talking

to God.

At this palace, another kind of mask is available: it’s a mud mask. Next to your

basin is a beautiful container that holds a small amount of this potent, healing

mud. Place it on your face. You can feel its warmth. It is gently absorbing all

toxins and masks. When you look in the mirror, it doesn’t appear on your face as

mud, but as sparking gold.

Put it on chest, feel it opening your heart.

Wash the beautiful gold layer off your face, and see yourself in the mirror,

purified. Cleansed. Without any overlay or mask. Feel the gold warm, still,

around your heart.

Now, look around at fellow travelers, also in the courtyard.

See a person you have resented without their masks. What do you notice

different about them, at this deeper, purified layer?

See a parent—

See someone else you love—a spouse, a child, a best friend—who are they,

without their masks?

Against the wall with the gate where you entered, you can see that the masks

have not been lost. They have been preserved in hard clay and soft plastic, in

every size and shape and color imaginable. You will be able to pick your mask

up again, if you wish, as you exit; you will be able to trade it out; or to leave with


Standing now, in the courtyard of the mask-less palace, face away from the gate,

toward the long path, leading to the majestic palace.

Grounds leading up to it? Color? Materials? Features of its architecture? Words

inscribed on the building? Does anyone greet you on the path?

You are heading for this majestic, holy Palace.

when you have a clear picture of it in your mind,

gently open your eyes.

Another meditation (to do at Ne’ilah/before the final Shofar blast): you are in the

palace, in a luxurious washing room, beautiful sinks & oils equivalent to what

Esther had. You have dwelled and prepared here for 25 hours. Now get ready to

enter the mikveh. Bringing them out of the meditation, point out: there are no oils

today, no make-up today, no anointing or bathing. We immerse ourselves

instead in prayer, repentance, and the final Shofar blast.

                         For the final benediction,
         a parable by Cecil Helman, the South African Jewish writer

                       “The Unmasking of the Apocalypse”

On the day before the Apocalypse, the streets are strewn with discarded masks.

We step among the piles of torn paper masks, their cheeks gaily painted,

scattering in the winds. With them lie the plastic and professional masks of

judges, officials, and others; some stern, some with frozen frowns, others still

plumply benevolent. In the dusk, running feet crunch the porcelain masks of

fashionable women, and trip on the hessian faces of the poor. One by one, we

peel the masks off our faces; tear off the smiles and sneers, molded in rubber or

wood, and throw them out of the windows. In the streets they are collected and

carried to bonfires, where soon the flames flicker up through their mouths and

empty eye-holes. Everywhere in the smoke there are the clicks of locks

unlocking, as people unhinge their black iron masks and throw them heavily to

the ground. Silence deadens the thud of their falling…

As the twilight of the last day reddens, we see—and recognize—one another for

the first time, for the last time. Now only one mask—different from all the

others—remains glued to our faces. It is that strong transparent mask which we

can see only on others, not on ourselves; which we can only pull from the faces

of our friends, but not from our own. Within this final mask, the air thickens slowly

in our lungs. Our eyes meet in the dusk; we reach out across the voids between

us. But our fingers are clumsy in the dark, and the mask is tightly glued. As we

struggle and fumble, we know that if only we can remove it now, the Apocalypse

may never need to arrive. ”

Here we stand, on the eve of the sealing of our fates in the Book of Life—or

Death. Our masks litter the ground of this synagogue—Here, a mask of

toughness to cover a deeper fragility; There, a mask of weakness to cover up the

truth that we could help it. In the corner is a mask of incompetence to cover the

sin of indifference. And there are hundreds of masks of indifference because so

many of us try to cover up how much we care.

This holiday, we assemble together in community for a very private shedding of

masks. We come together because we can help each other. Because, especially

when we are serious and courageous about being open and unmasked, an

outside perspective can help.

As the masks fall, we become more and more transparent to each other. We

are able better

to see

and forgive

and love each other.

As we peel off the layers of pretense, it boils down to this: [gesture to take off a


“I will risk showing my true face, and you can trust me to see yours.”

And then the revelation we were so afraid of reveals itself to be the very thing

that saves us, and repairs the world, and seals us for life and peace.

God, open our hearts. Give us the courage to unmask.

Let vulnerability be rewarded with kindness.

May this be a year of disclosure and healing, freedom and truth.


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