A discomfiting feeling crept over me as I watched the fellow remove his head.
Well, not his head – though that would have been discomfiting too, even more so. This was just a costume head, that of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster. The scene: a small island of concrete in the middle of lower Broadway in Manhattan, where a moment before, Mr. Monster had been happily (at least his expression seemed to say so) posing with a pair of happy children (their expressions left no doubt), the latter’s parents pointing their phones at the photogenic performer and progeny.
My discomfiture arose from discordance, the jarring contrast between the friendly furry face, now dangling from a hand, and the entertainer’s actual own face, heavily stubbled and sneering. Grumbling and angry, he was clearly not enjoying his job.
It might be a professional hazard. A year or so later, an Elmo in Times Square began shouting anti-Semitic rants (with his head on, so to speak) and blocking traffic before being arrested. Another Cookie Monster in the same area stands accused of shoving a 2-year-old when he deemed his mother’s tip insufficient for his services. (“He was using words that were really bad,” she related.)
It’s not easy being cooped up in a hot full-body costume. I know that from personal experience as a Purim gorilla several decades ago. But I’m pretty sure I emerged smiling if sweaty, and while I may have frightened some small children, I didn’t mistreat any.
The disconnect between appearances and what lies beneath can sometimes come crashing down on heads, as it did on mine in lower Manhattan and on that of the mother in Times Square. Similarly, a blast of puzzlement and pain hit many of late when a respected academic and rabbi was accused of assuming internet and e-mail aliases for purposes both perplexing (to tout his intellect and accomplishments) and unethical (allegedly providing anecdotal misinformation about a halachic matter).
The electronic masquerading, though, like the fur and plastic sort, might lead the thoughtful to think about how most of us wear masks too. No, we aren’t (hopefully) rude malcontents trying to make a quick buck off of toddlers’ parents. And we also (again hopefully) don’t utilize aliases to self-aggrandize or mislead others (though some sympathy is due an accomplished scholar who must have faced forces we cannot fathom to have so risked – and now lost – respect and credibility amassed over years).
But still, are we always in fact the “we” we project to others? Are we, even the observant Orthodox Jews among us, not – at least on occasion – somewhat inconsistent with our appearances? I once heard a well-known rabbi pose the funny (yet serious) question: “How is it that people sometimes forget to recite a bracha achrona (the blessing after eating) but somehow never forget to eat?” His point was that if all halacha-committed Jews were truly as observant as they appear, they could no more forget to discharge a religious obligation than they could to attend to the demands of their stomachs.
Do those of us whose dress and demeanor bespeak “fervent” Jewish observance not sometimes lapse into questionable speech or thought, or halachic “corner-cutting”? Does that not make some black hats and beards the Jewish equivalent of Elmo costumes?
My rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, once (it may even have been in response to the question above) helped me see something I had missed in a familiar Talmudic statement. “Any talmid chochom [religious scholar] whose inside does not reflect his outside,” Rava states, “is no talmid chochom.”
Rabbi Weinberg called attention to the fact that Rava doesn’t simply say that a scholar (or any religious Jew) needs to be the same inside and out, but rather implies that there is a process here: first the outside has to be established; then, to become truly accomplished, the inside must be brought into line with the outward appearance.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with presenting an image of ourselves as we wish to be, even if we haven’t yet merited to fulfill that wish. If we have no such wish, our appearance is a meaningless costume, or worse. But if one’s dress and demeanor are adopted along with a concomitant determination to work toward reflecting inwardly what one projects to the world, well, that’s what yeshiva circles call “working on oneself,” and it’s, in fact, what living a Jewish life is all about.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran