My ever-so-elegant mother was born in France. Thus, perhaps it’s in my blood to like all things trimmed with ostrich feathers? And so, when I saw a bedazzling-golden-gilded-masquerade mask further embellished by burgundy plumage, I thought there was no better decorative accessory to hang on the bare narrow wall in my office. I couldn’t get back fast enough to hang it up. Yet, all my creative efforts to affix it and angle it so as to maximize its beauty failed-- nails, glue, hooks, all for naught. It didn’t fit and that was it. For the first time in a long time I wasn’t talking to the walls, they were talking to me. But what were they saying? I speak three languages but Sheetrock isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, that blank wall, at which I often stare unwittingly when turning away from my blank computer screen and as a reprieve from writer’s block, was demanding something else. Did it even know what or was I supposed to know? Three days later, with great ease I hung upon my narrow wall in vertical fashion, the antidote to the mask and all its duplicitous implications--three 12X12 paintings each bearing a bold Hebrew letter Aleph, Mem & Tav. Together they spell the word emet /“truth.” My wall seems very happy now, my soul too, my wallet not so much. But I have learned long ago that in the long run the price of truth is cheaper than its competitors and very often recompensed beyond measure.
The problem with most of us is that we are seduced and charmed by masks and false veneers, even our own. They seem easier to wear when interfacing with the world and even with ourselves. It’s ironic that Moses used to wear a mask to temper the light and Godliness that emanated from his face and we wear figurative masks to hide the lies and darkness of who we are. We hide behind our titles, money, fashion labels, and some even behind religious garb. Truth takes a lot of guts, both to dish it out and to receive it. We’ve heard it said, “The truth hurts.” Like the famous line in the movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.” But then our lives are beset with problems and we turn to God and ask, “Why is this happening to me?” We can tolerate the truth only when life hurts more than the truth. When our tears burn like acid.
Truth involves accountability. It involves the whole story, A-Z, not just the details you want to include. And that is why the three-letter word for truth in Hebrew is comprised of the very first, the middle and the very last letter of the Aleph Bet. It is ALL encompassing. The truth, unlike me, does not need an editor to polish it up and to cut out extraneous words. And so, we see in this week’s Torah reading how Joseph’s brothers who seemed to live without much conscience all those years for having sold their brother, only dared to face the truth when they had terrible troubles of their own. The truth was not extraneous to them, it was in them. “They said one to another: Indeed, we’re guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he entreated us and we would not hear; therefore is this anguish come upon us.”
We read in the Torah that Yehuda, Joseph’s brother, buried two sons of his own. Rabbinical exegetes explain that it was punishment for the pain he cast on his own father by his involvement in Joseph’s disappearance. Yet even then, he did not say his misfortunes were a result of his misdeeds. And so, his troubles didn’t cease until he professed culpability along with his brothers. In our own lives too, when we attribute the source of our troubles to everything and everyone instead of pointing the finger at ourselves, our suffering will continue. Firstly, because we will never change, repent or make good. And secondly, because God will keep reminding us through further tribulations. The Talmud says that God hates liars. And something tells me it’s not a good thing when God hates you.
The Hebrew word aval (indeed) which comes before the brothers’ long repressed confession is interesting because it can mean many things. The manner in which they use it is honest and free of excuses: “INDEED we are guilty.” Except this same Hebrew word, aval, also means BUT. Ah, the word “but,” the famous pivot upon which the best excuses swivel: But, I wouldn’t have cheated on her if she lost weight; but I wouldn’t have stolen a few bucks from the petty cash if they paid me more; but I did it because they deserved it. Who said the manufacturing business is dead? We manufacture more excuses every day for the decisions we make than the Chinese manufacture knock-off fake designer wear. We put in a lot of time and effort manufacturing phony, make-believe lives, producing semblances of decency, piety, importance and sophistication. Instead, we really should be ripping off the mask and taking our true selves to task.
Why? Because that same word aval which means both “indeed” and “but” in Hebrew, also spells another word and that word is MOURNING. Erase the Hebrew vowels under the letters and you have no idea if you are reading the word, “indeed,” “but” or “mourning.”
Three times a charm, right? Wrong! Nothing’s a coincidence in God’s holy language. Mourning is the common denominator for the two roads we can travel. On one road mourning will heal us.On the other, it will bury us alive. We can mourn our misdeeds, pull off the self-deceptive mask, stop appeasing our conscience, toss out cheap excuses, retire all the “ifs and buts” as Joseph brother’s ultimately do. Or, we can perpetually mourn our troubles, continue to justify our misdeeds and invite further suffering upon ourselves--sometimes to the point of no return--simply because we are stubborn, arrogant or ignorant and look so much better with the mask on. With the mask on, it’s never your fault. Now you not only have something in common with the mass producers of the phony and fake but also with Eden’s Primordial Snake. He too was a master at making excuses to justify wrong behavior and thus brought mankind down. Better to be like King David “whose greatness shines in both his ability to take responsibility for his actions and the humility of his admission and the repentance that follows. This is part of the reason that the ultimate redeemer of the Jewish people and the world will descend from David's line ― he will be ‘Messiah, son of David.’”
I look away from my computer and the “truth” is hanging before me. I really love it. Knowing my sensibilities, I’m not really sure how I could ever have contemplated hanging a mask to begin with. The only feather it seems I've really been bequeathed to pick up is my writing quill which I will continue to dip in God's Soul--the ultimate Fountain of Truth—and tell you everything you don’t want to hear.