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8 Mar 2015

In the Eyes of the Beholder

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Dressing Up

We called them “fancy-dress parties”. They didn’t happen that often but a friend down the street was turning ten – cause for a big bash. And my sisters and I were invited. The three of us traipsed off to the masquerade, 6 minutes down Marion Place, in full regalia. We were the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker! Mostly, I remember my Mom’s red-checkered apron wrapped twice round my waist, Leah’s baker’s hat and Jo’s brass candle holder with its white waxen stick flopping around as we oh so proudly stepped onto the sidewalk. We were a hit. Okay, so the ballerina, the princess and the bride came in first, second and third – but still, in my book, my sisters and I took the cake. We were a team. And I loved donning a pretend identity.

Decades on, I still “dress up” but more often than not, it’s in the form of more subtle masks, posturing as one person when I’m another. Some of them are holy. I slip into my “just do it!” outfit and wear a smile to a wedding, even though my heart is dull. The garb and the smile carry me into their space and I end up dancing with joy for the bride (or her Mom, whose circle I’ve suddenly become part of!) But I have other masks too, unconscious and less virtuous – like the veil of anger I use to get my way, or the “I didn’t see you” one when I pass a beggar in a rush. It’s not new to me that I do this. The work is not in identifying that the habit exists but in realizing just when I’m slipping into dress-up mode unconsciously.

What takes me more by surprise is the extent to which I’m inclined to dress others up too. And how often those I meet with drape me in their veils.

Three Masks

The Talmud[1] relates three stories about Rabbi Yehuda that pinpoint our proclivity for the practice. The great sage was once sitting with his teacher Rabbi Tarfon.

The latter said to him, “Your face is shining today.”

He explained his glow by saying, “Yesterday, your servants went out to the field and brought us beets. We ate them without salt. And had we eaten them with salt, our faces would shine all the more.”

On another occasion, a Roman noblewoman once said to him, “You are a teacher who decides on legal rulings[2] and yet you are drunk! How could you become intoxicated?”

To this he replied, “By the honor of that woman, I would be swearing falsely if I even taste wine the entire year other than to make Kiddush, Havdala, and to drink the Four Cups on Passover night…”

The third story tells of a Sadducee who once said to the scholar, “Your face seems to be either that of those who lend money on interest, or of pig farmers.”

Rabbi Yehuda answered him, “By the oath used among Jews, both of those occupations are forbidden to me. They are not the reason for my glow. More exactly, I have twenty-four lavatories between my house and the study hall, and each hour I enter each and every one of them!”

The Talmud however explains the reason for his glow by quoting a verse from Ecclesiastes. “A man’s wisdom brightens his face.”[3] King Solomon is attesting to the fact that our external appearance is largely a reflection of our internal consciousness. One can see pain or joy, confusion and clarity, arrogance and wisdom on a person’s face. It’s more than the smile or frown, the upturned nose or open eyes. Rather the sparkle in one’s eyes, the pallor of the skin, one’s aura, all flow from our inner core. The Talmud clearly asserts that it was Rabbi Yehuda’s inner identity that was visible on his face. His immense wisdom radiated through his face with such intensity that it caused others to comment on it.

Yet each person attributed the glow to such different things. How so? Rabbi Tarfon, who was Rabbi Yehuda’s teacher and whose face presumably shone with the same radiance, could identify the glow on his student’s face. He recognized it was wisdom that brightened his face. The noblewoman lived a life of luxury and most likely indulgent parties and excess. Hence she perceived him as a drunk. And the Sadducee, someone who had left his religious heritage and rejected his soul, saw a man engaged in unlawful business dealings. They each saw in him something of themselves. They dressed him up according to their own inclinations.

And in turn, Rabbi Yehuda recognized where each person was coming from. As such he was able to decline taking on the veils or masks they attempted to place on his head. To his teacher he responded humbly, attributing his radiance to a dietary change – the red beets had caused his ruddy complexion. The Roman noblewoman was concerned that he, a Rabbi who made legal rulings, might do so whilst intoxicated. Rabbi Yehuda put her at ease by explaining his minimal intake of alcohol. And to the Sadducee, he responded acerbically for how is it possible that one mistake the radiance of Torah wisdom for that of labor in a pig-sty! Possibly he wanted to shock him into realizing to what a position he had fallen.[4] In each case, Rabbi Yehuda identified the lens of the other and remained connected to his own inner core.

The Queen’s Secret

It’s tough work. No images. Not in relation to ourselves, towards others, or from them to us. Just this week I had a conversation with a friend where this was the work. She was displeased with me. I wanted to “get her”, to really take myself out of myself and see her for who she is with all the validity of her perspective. And at the same time, I wanted to hear her thoughts without “dressing up” in them as an automatic response to her comments. I thought of Rabbi Yehuda. But even more than him, I thought of someone from a far off land and a far off time whose immediacy was with me at the table, in the slanted Brooklyn light of late winter, and whose gentle prod I am feeling since. I was thinking of someone whose identity glowed so radiantly that all projection ceased. I was thinking of Queen Esther.

The Megilla tells us that she “found favor in the eyes of all who saw her.”[5] The Talmud[6] comments that anyone who looked at her perceived her as being one of their own nation. The Indians saw an Indian, the Ethiopians an Ethiopian. To the Brits of her day she spoke the Queen’s English and to Americans she would have been as one of them as apple pie. How is such a thing possible? How was it possible that arch enemies took her as their own?

Our sages explain that each nation has its own unique and positive characteristic. They picked it up unconsciously when engaged with fellow natives. Yet Esther was a person of such vast and deep qualities that she embodied each of these characteristics. She held within her being the perfection of kindness and courage and empathy and vision that was to be found in distinct nations. She embodied the core gifts of humanity in one whole person. So the romantics or artists, the rationalists and mystics, the free-flowing types and the tough-discipline ilk, all saw in her something of their own. Esther reflected back at each person their quintessential point of good. The drunkards and rebels, the cynics and liars were in her presence lifted beyond their own limited beings. For she was so radiant that her being allowed no room for seeing anything other than what was truest and best – both in her and the observer.

I’m no Esther. Sometimes I dress up as the candlestick maker, trying to bring light to the chunks of darkness around me. And at others, I’m the butcher. Most days, I’m the baker, putting supper on the table, stirring steel-ground oats in the morning, feeding a kind word when my son’s prize (made in China!) breaks as he opens the wrapper, with the hope of imbuing the mundane with meaning. And unfortunately, I dress others up too. As sages, and drunks – yes, even as pig-farmers. And I have a whole host of masks both hanging from my neck and discarded in my psychological closet that friends or strangers have swathed me with. Then at times, I sit before someone who reflects to me something of my innate worth and purpose. It’s enlivening, a touchstone of purpose. It motivates me to put down the masks and thereby reflect to someone else their own inviolable beauty and worth. Esther whispers to me in different ways each year. This year, her call is to glow from within, and in so doing to shine back at others their own inner shining self.

This article was originally printed on www.thejewishwoman.org 

[1] Nedarim, 49b

[2] Rashi on the text. The woman used a play on the honorable title mori verabi, which means “My master and teacher.” She paraphrased it as moreh varavei, “a decision maker and a drunk!”

[3] Ecclesiastes 8:1

[4] The Maharsha states that pig farmers frequent lavatories.

[5] Megillat Esther 2:15

[6] This is the opinion of Rabbi Elazar, Megilla 13:1

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