A Masked Rosh Hashanah, A Masked Shofar: Discovering Our Greatest Selves
Click here to watch a video recording of Rabbi Exler's Rosh Hashanah sermon.
I still forget my mask about once a week, leaving the house to run an errand or run carpool, or to come to tefillah at the Bayit. It’s strange, because we’ve been doing this for six months, and the mask is right next to our front door. Yet, somehow, embedded in that forgetting, is a resistance, a denial, a still-struggling, six months later, with the painful reality we still find ourselves in; with the dreadful losses of life, of health, of normalcy and of stability that this pandemic has wrought – to the most vulnerable most of all. And in different ways, to all of us.
And the forgetting also reflects my resistance to the mask itself. I don’t like being covered. I don’t like not showing you my full face. I don’t like knowing that it’s hard to have a conversation because we have to stand six feet apart and struggle to hear each other, to take in each other’s full expressions and full selves.
So I keep forgetting.
If there were ever a time I wouldn’t want to wear a mask – it’s Rosh Hashanah. How could we imagine, approaching Rosh Hashanah, that we could spend this day masked, the day on which we pour out our hearts and the tefillah of our lips in front of God, how can we imagine that we would be concealed, not able to present our full selves alongside each other and in the presence of our creator on the anniversary of creation?
How can we accept that the central mitzvah upon this day, the mitzvah of the shofar, that health guidelines suggest that this, too, should be masked, this symbol of our inner voice, our calling out to God, that it needs to be limited, confined and concealed? It’s painful.
And yet - reflecting on masks, their symbolism and their complexity, especially in the context of Rosh Hashanah this year, has given me a certain insight, a thought, that I want to share with you.
While none of us wish this pandemic would ever have happened and while the first prayer on my lips every day is for its disappearance, of its end – there is something in this time that has taught us a powerful lesson about who we are, who we want to be, and how to become, see and embrace our best selves. And it is a teaching that comes from the nature of Rosh Hashanah.
Actually, Rosh Hashanah is itself a holiday of hiddenness, of masking. We learn this from the passage in the Gemara based on Psalm 81, that tells us how it is that the judgment day falls out on Rosh Hashanah.
תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר בַּ֝כֵּ֗סֶה לְי֣וֹם חַגֵּֽנוּ׃ כִּ֤י חֹ֣ק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֣ל ה֑וּא מִ֝שְׁפָּ֗ט לֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹֽב׃
Blast a shofar on this month - perhaps the new month - in concealment, on our festival day. It is a statute for Israel, a judgement, a law for the God of Jacob.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 8a-b) asks:
איזהו חג שהחדש מתכסה בו
Which is the holiday whose month, whose moon, is concealed, hidden, masked upon it? This is Rosh Hashanah.
The only holiday around our entire cycle of the holidays on which the moon is ba’keseh – is concealed, is Rosh Hashanah, as it starts at the beginning of the month, not the middle. It’s not a holiday of the full moon in all its beauty, but a holiday that to establish in beit din, to determine its day, we have to squint. To look carefully. To find that masked sliver of a moon.
Says the gemara ,ַַּ֝בֵּ֗כֶסהְ ליֹ֣וםַ חֵּֽגנוּ – that concealment and blowing the shofar ba’keseh, masked, concealed on our festival day, that is the day that should be the Yom Ha-din. The Yom Chok U’Mishpat, the Day of Judgement, within and for the entire year and for all of us.
Rashi comments on ba’keseh, concealed: the moon is not fully hidden! If we couldn’t see it at all, it wouldn’t be Rosh Hashanah. But it’s hard to see from afar. And therefore we have to scrutinize it, we have to look closely at it, we have to really, really examine it to come to know that it’s really Rosh Hashanah. In that sense, Rosh Hashanah is a day, a holiday, an experience that is about recognizing that somehow through covering we come to examine and understand things more closely.
For me, this is most evident in the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation. Is there anything more revealed – and masked/concealed at the same time – than the beauty of the natural world, than the creation of the universe? It’s out there in front of us every day – we see trees, we see birds, we see nature, we see God’s revealed world, the majesty of human beings – there is nothing more revealed than that. And yet, do we understand creation? It is the ultimate, ultimate mystery, the ultimate concealed truth how this incredible world that we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah came to be.
Through things that are at once obvious, apparent and at the same time concealed, we come to seek to understand their deeper nature, their identity even more. And this is so manifest in discovering ourselves in moments of masking, confinement and concealment.
What’s happened to us in this six month period while we’ve quarantined, while we’ve isolated, while we’ve covered ourselves? I think in so many ways we have been forced to come face to face with all that we really are, stripped away of the opportunities to escape or flee or define ourselves through others. This has been a time of facing our real selves, seeing what matters to us most, thinking about our most precious relationships, and turning inwards.
It’s literally true about the experience of masking. My neshima, my breath, goes forth from me at all times without my paying it a moment’s notice. But when I mask, I can’t help but feel my breath bouncing back, floating around inside this mask, fogging up my glasses. I can hear it, feel it, sense it all around me. When I’m masked, I scrutinize and notice my inner self.
Yom Ha’din, Rosh Hashanah is a day when we are isolated, quarantined with God.
We pass one by one, alone, in the judgement chamber with God. There is nothing but us that God sees in that moment. Perhaps in a sense there is nothing but God that we see. That’s the nature of Yom Hadin. It’s a day of confinement, concealment, constraint, a covering over that invites us to look more deeply into ourselves. And that’s what these last six months has been. An opportunity to see and know our true selves.
What have we found?
For me, what I’ve discovered in quarantine and isolation and masking is that under all these constraints, with all these limitations and masks, I feel that I’ve come face to face with heroism, with the reserves of strength and community and kindness and volunteerism that have been unmatched in my 12 wonderful years in our Bayit.
From following guidelines for safety and health to reaching out to people we knew and people we then didn’t know six months ago to make sure they were okay. Not just once, but over weeks and months we deepened the bonds of community in our Bayit, took care of each other, made sure each other were okay to the best of our ability.
When we couldn’t gather in person en masse to raise a voice against racism, to say that black lives matter to us as Jews and to all people, when we were confined, instead we stood for days, and days, hour after hour, one household at a time, our longest communal vigil ever, at the monument, all while masked, while limited, confined and constrained.
And under those constraints we were not held back from the process of reopening our Bayit. Slowly growing our daily and Shabbat tefillot to more and more who felt safe and ready to come back. Celebrating life cycle events first over Zoom and then right outside on the terrace, bringing Tot Shabbat and the presence of our children back to the terrace.
To this Rosh Hashanah, where close to 600 of us will attend safely designed indoor and outdoor tefillot with micro-communities of our Bayit led by many, many times more people than have ever led and participated in our Rosh Hashanah tefillot, alongside the hundreds more of us who made the difficult and life-affirming decisions to remain at home. While confined and constrained, putting forth our best selves to daven, introspect and connect with God, making this the best Rosh Hashanah 5781 it can be.
I’m still carrying with me a conversation I had earlier this week with a member of our Bayit who expressed to me that as this Rosh Hashanah approaches, he’s feeling, in his words, less prepared than ever to stand in front of God, to stand in tefillah, to welcome Rosh Hashanah.
And I was shocked when he said that, because this is a person who in the last six months has taken superhuman care of sick and ailing loved ones – those ailing from coronavirus, and those not – whose care has been made incredibly more challenging by these pandemic times. It’s someone who took great risks to make huge professional strides in the last year. It’s someone who has stepped up in communal leadership under the most challenging circumstance in the busiest, most difficult times.
And yet I understand what he meant when he said he felt less prepared than ever. Because of all those masks, and all those constraints. But if the message of Rosh Hashanah is that those masks invite us to see ourselves for our true selves, to see the power of the obvious when it sometimes feels hidden, then I could turn to him and say, perhaps in the most stifling masks you and we have all ever worn, I actually believe this Rosh Hashanah you can stand before God and say, my true colors are shining through, and I am a person of incredible strength, resilience and capability.
Each of us in our own ways should stand confidently before our Creator on this day and say, perhaps because of all the masking, I’ve come to see my true inner greatness and bring it forth.
The Midrash says that Rosh Hashanah is a day of flight –ְ לדִִּ֨וד ׀ ְי-הִּ֤וה ׀ אֹוִּ֣רי ְְ֭וִּיְשִּׁעי. Say the Sages, "my light” refers to Rosh Hashanah. That light is the godly spirit inside each“ – אורי זה ראש השנה and every one of us, that when masked, perhaps even more greatly, shines through, transcending its constraints and limitations.
Which brings us back to the shofar. What makes it halakhically permissible to fulfill the mitzvah when the mouth, the opening of this shofar is masked? The halakhah is clear. If the kol comes through unhindered, if the voice comes out despite the mask, it’s a kosher shofar blowing.
We’ve fulfilled the mitzvah. And this year I believe we actually fulfill it in the most powerful way, because what we see is that the mask does not hinder the inner voice from coming out.
Now, I would demonstrate but all you’d hear if I did is that the same sputtering I would bring forth without a mask comes through with the mask...
But our shofar blowers in the month of Elul have shown us that the sound of the shofar comes through whether masked or unmasked. And when masked, the power of that inner sound is even more incredible, because we see what we can achieve even under the most trying of circumstances.
So this Rosh Hashanah –
Tik’u ba’hodesh shofar, bakeseh layom hageinu...
Blow the shofar masked and concealed. That will be Yom Hageinu. That will be our opportunity to celebrate. That will be our hag. It’s to recognize that when masked we see our true power, our real colors shine through. Our real light shines through. Our real kol, kol haneshama, the sound of our soul, bursts forth through any constraint, any limitation and any mask.
So yes, the first tefillah on my lips this Rosh Hashanah will still be to remove our masks, to end this pandemic, to begin and continue the journey of healing, of recovery, of restoration and of renewal to a new and better world with stronger safety nets, with more health, more safety, more care and more relationship.
And in the same breath, this Rosh Hashanah, under my mask, I believe that I and we discover more of ourselves, more of our values, more of our capability, yes, more of our challenges, more of our resilience, more of our neshima, our breath, and more of our neshama, our soul.
And so, through the masked shofar and our masked mouths, let our voices ring out this Rosh Hashanah.
Tik’u ba’hodesh shofar, bakeseh layom hageinu...
May we blast our inner shofars with the words and the wishes: Shanah Tovah. Shanah Tovah! Shanah tovah.