In the fascinating book Name Dropping, the late economist and perennial presidential adviser John Kenneth Galbraith tells the following story. President Lyndon Johnson was known to be a colorful man — rude and charming, cunning and innocent, all at the same time. A former Johnson speechwriter once joked to Galbraith that "LBJ was seven of the most interesting people that I had ever met" — all mixed into one.
How interesting to learn that the word "person" comes from the Latin, persona, and means "mask." In the classical world, an actor would put on a different persona, or mask, to play different parts. We all display multipersonalities. Life is typically not black and white; it is often gray. And we respond in kind. Indeed, it has been said that the Torah itself was revealed mitokh ha'arafel, "in the mist."
Often, life is lived in the midst of the mist.
But alas, who is above missing the mark? This week, we encounter the first post-Sinaitic communal chait, or "sin." A chait in Hebrew literally means, "to miss the target." This first communal miss is referred to as the sin of the "golden calf."
Background: We as a community had just witnessed the impressive choreography of Sinai, where God revealed the Aseret HaDibrot — "Ten Master Statements." Moses subsequently ascends the mountain to learn how to unpack and explicate these laws. Our sages suggest that Moses also learned the rules of hermeneutics, or interpretation and derivations. I guess, in a sense, even Moses went to rabbinical school. But now, 40 days later, Moses is running late. (It seems even he's not exempt from the phenomenon known as "Jewish time.")
But his people are less sanguine. They sense that their leader is lost to them. And their response? They build an icon, popularly referred to as a golden calf. But this image was not to be worshipped. It was, suggests some of the classical commentaries, most notably Ramban, meant to be a physical instantiated representation of a new leader. After all, when you think about it, many of them for all their conscious lives woke up with Moses as their leader, liberator and legislator. And they needed him — or someone like him — now more than ever.
Just when there is light, they think they are thrown back into darkness. Just when they think there is clarity, they are thrown back to uncertainty. The mist is once again enveloping them. And their response?
Authenticity and Purpose
Allow me to share the response in the original Hebrew. They built an eigel maseicha. Interestingly, the word masecha can also mean a mask. The people built a "masked image."
My mother grew up with the TV show "The Lone Ranger." Admittedly, there is something mysterious about a man with a mask. But there is something about masks that, forgive the tautology, mask the real.
We are all, perhaps more than we care to admit, wearers of multiple persona. It is through the Torah and tradition that we can find integration, meaning and coherence. It is our Jewish values that can given authenticity and purpose to our lives.
How telling it is that after the encounter with the Divine, Moses took to wearing a veil — a mask if you will. But when he engaged with the Divine — that is, when God spoke to Moses — the mask came off. Better, and perhaps even more significant, when Moses taught the Jewish people, he removed this veil.
When it comes to reclaiming our own story, we should be willing to be fully exposed — no barriers, no masks. We have a tradition that is rich, a heritage that is worthy of our attention and a Torah that has been, and for us should be, the only gold standard that we need.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.