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Embrace Your Mask

June 7, 2020 | by Rabbi Philip Moskowitz

Besides the health benefits, there is another upside that could help us create a warmer, more inclusive community.

Who would have dreamt that just three months ago, when many of us put on masks to celebrate the holiday of Purim, that masks would now become a mainstay of everyday living. “Don’t leave home without it,” once reserved for your American Express card, can now be applied with far greater relevancy to the masks that we now wear.

Yet, while on Purim we wore masks for fun and levity, these days masks can be onerous, oppressive, and downright uncomfortable.

Masks also inhibit one of the crucial parts of how we communicate: seeing and reading someone’s facial expression. The mishna instructs us to "Greet everybody with a warm, cheerful, and pleasant countenance" (Pirkei Avos 1:15) for the simple reason that something seemingly so small as a smile can communicate something so significant. The look on your face can make someone feel appreciated and valued, it can let someone know you’re angry or upset, it can communicate warmth and intimacy, or it can create distance. Wearing a mask obscures all of this and creates enormous and unnecessary literal social distancing, even when you’re only six feet apart.

But perhaps there is an overlooked upside to wearing masks.

One of my favorite books is “Wonder,” in which R. J. Palacio tells the (fictional) story of Auggie Pullman, a ten-year-old boy just like anyone you know. He eats ice cream, rides his bike, plays ball, and has a great sense of humor. But the moment older people look at him they avert their eyes, and little kids get scared and start screaming or saying something nasty and hurtful. Auggie was born with numerous genetic abnormalities, and even after 27 surgeries, Auggie bears facial disfigurations so pronounced that people who see him for the first time quickly look away as they try to manage their shock and horror. When describing his face, he writes, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

Auggie begins his tale by introducing himself:

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things… and I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go. If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look away thing. Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

Then he describes the one day a year that he gets to wear a mask. “For me, Halloween is the best holiday in the world… I get to dress up in a costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me. I wish every day could be [just like it]. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.”

Despite the obvious challenges that come with wearing a mask, perhaps Auggie’s right; maybe there is an enormous upside to it (besides the health benefits). When we wear masks, when we disguise and minimize what we look like on the outside, only then can we can really get to know the real person. We can see people for their substance, who they truly are, and not focus on trivial externalities. We can all focus on what’s inside a person, beneath the surface, and on what truly matters.

Our Sages tell us “Don’t look at the jug but rather look at what’s inside” (ibid 4:20). If only we could look into the contents of the jar instead of making assumptions based on looks and appearances, how much better and more civilized would our society be?

Too often, we focus and judge people on their externalities. We make snap decisions about whether or not we like a person or trust a person based solely on how the person looks and with complete disregard for who that person truly is.

Perhaps wearing masks can help shift our focus away from those externalities and instead towards an emphasis on more meaningful interactions.

The next time you pick up your mask to go to the supermarket or outdoor minyan, instead of lamenting this uncomfortable task, ask yourself the following questions: Wouldn’t it be great if we looked past the externalities by which we so regularly judge each other? Wouldn’t it be great if we heeded Auggie Pullman’s advice and “get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks?” How much more inclusive, warm and welcoming would our communities look like then.

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