Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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We’ve started playing a game in my house. It’s called “that’s a terrible idea!” And it goes like this. You name something that would be totally outlandish to do, then you look at each other and say: “should we do that?” And then we answer together: “NO! That is a terrible idea!” And then we laugh hysterically. Like: should we put this whole cereal box in your belly button? No! That’s a terrible idea!

Now, beyond questioning my parenting skills, which would be fair, it just gives us a laugh when we need it.

But I have to say that it’s starting to feel like maybe the universe is playing this same game with us, and it’s not always quite as funny. Universe thinks: well, it’s May—should we send a polar vortex snowstorm to NYC this week? We, half laughing, respond: That’s a terrible idea! The universe continues: What about giant winged beasts with terrifying stingers…we’ll call them murder hornets! And, with considerably less laughter, we think…no…a terrible idea!

Well. Lots of what’s going on right now would, in most other scenarios, also be considered a terrible idea.

Should we keep our kids home, away from their friends, learning on screens, while we try to work full time? Should we not visit our older parents in person for months on end. Should we turn all of our face to face encounters into two dimensions? In any other year, these would be terrible ideas!

And one that I think is really messing with us in interesting ways: should we—at a time when we need one another most, need to feel a sense of camaraderie among us, when we go outside, should we wear masks that hide our faces, our smiles, hide our looks of empathy and kindness, from one another? In any other year…that would just be a terrible idea.

Right now, we are being asked to make quite difficult choices in order to protect one another—even strangers—like wearing masks all the time outside! And yet, when we mask our faces, two things happen. One, a masked person takes on the look of someone who should be avoided, and our brain signals to us “danger, stay away!” And two, wearing a mask seriously diminishes our capacity to share a gentle or sweet look of care and unity. Just as we need to be casting our lots together, we get hit with this double whammy of disconnection and fear of the other. And it takes a toll.

I know that when I’m walking outside, wearing my mask, I’m often overcome with the emotions of that experience. My covered face is telling my brain that others are dangers that I need to avoid, so I end up avoiding all interaction while I pull my child farther away. But my heart is telling me: “these are your people! They’re in this with us…get closer to your people! Smile at your people! You belong to one another!” And I am stuck behind a mask, unable to express any of that with only my eyes visible.

We are deep in the struggle. Are we friend or foe behind our masks and how do we connect when we need to most, but we can’t even see anyone’s face?

This week, in parshat Emor, there is a little hint of an answer. The text tells us more about the duties of the Kohen, the priest. And after it says all that he needs to do, how he should dress, and all the risks he takes in his life of sacred duties, parshat Emor now turns to how we should treat the priest. This is weird! Why wouldn’t we know how to treat this person who is so obviously important?! But maybe his otherness, and his closeness to God, and to the blood and guts of sacrifice, and his strange dress, would make us afraid of him or make us distance ourselves from him. So the text comes to tell us: how should we treat him? One word: v’kidashto. And you shall treat him as a holy being. Not as an “other” or enemy or fearfully, but as holy.

And I think this might give us our compass. A masked person is not a priest, you say? True, but a priest acts on behalf of the people, as a masked person acts on behalf of other people. A priest acts for the sake of others, just as a masked person acts for the sake of others. A Priest makes sacrifices for others. In our English sense of the word, this masked person is clearly making sacrifices for others. In the Hebrew sense of the word for sacrifice, korban, meaning to draw near, the priest is drawing close to God, and the masked person is drawing close to us by aligning themselves with our fate. V’kidashto…So we treat him or her or them as holy beings.

Okay, so we get it rationally. It’s definitely something to work on. But now, how will I express that I see that person? That I extend friendliness? Practice allyship? Feel conspiratorial unity from six feet away? I have only my eyes showing. I think that our physical inability to smile at a person walking near us is contributing to our brains identifying them as “danger.” And thinking of others only as “danger” right now—I think it contributes to a breakdown of empathy and community and of our very souls. So this is where our creativity needs to come in.

At the inspiration from my friend and colleague Rabbi Guy Austrian, I thought we could do a little study here on how to overcome this double whammy challenge. Now, I know not everyone is going outside right now, but maybe we have people coming to our doors with deliveries, and that poses the very same questions.

What actions can we take to retrain our brains and hearts back into seeing our neighbors as companions on this journey? And, masked, how can we let them know that THAT is what we are feeling?

(NOTE: When this sermon was delivered on Friday, the service attendees broke into small virtual groups to share ideas together, answering the following questions—you can answer them for yourself now, too! 1) How are you feeling about being masked or otherwise hiding your face, and 2) what are things we can do to v’kidashto—treat our mask-wearing neighbor as a holy being, when they can’t see our face? Do you write something on your mask? What else? What can we literally and creatively do in this very strange situation?)

There is so much right now that is strange and hard and requires us to come up with new ways to remain who we are and who we want to be. These ideas we are coming with now (and the ones you are coming with at home!) are so beautiful. Let’s do them and practice them—they are meditation, they are prayer, they are acts of true holiness. And they can keep us close to one another while we feel so far away.