When the Walls Talk Back
As I found myself looking away from my blank computer screen as a reprieve from writer’s block, I found myself staring at a blank wall instead. It was crying out for décor. And so, when I saw a decorative golden-gilded-masquerade mask embellished by burgundy feathers, I thought it would look great on the bare narrow wall in my office. I couldn’t get back fast enough from the store 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, 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 seemed to be rejecting the mask and was demanding something else. Did it even know what it wanted or was I supposed to figure it out?
Three days later, with no difficulties at all, I hung up the antidote to the mask and all its duplicitous implications -- three 12X12 paintings, each bearing a bold Hebrew letter: Aleph, Mem & Tav. Together they spelled the word emet (truth). After all, what better mantra to inspire a writer and teacher of Torah?
The problem with most of us is that we are seduced and charmed by masks and false veneers, even our own. They seem to make it easier to interface with the world, and even with ourselves. It is ironic that Moses wore a mask to temper the light and Godliness that emanated from his face, while we wear figurative masks to hide our lies and inner darkness. We hide behind our titles, money, fashion labels, and some even hide behind religious garb.
It takes a great deal of courage to be truthful: both to express it and to accept it. We all know the saying, “The truth hurts.” But when we hide behind lies, our lives are beset with problems. We then turn to God and ask, “Why is this happening to me?” We can face the truth only when life hurts more than the truth. When our tears burn like acid. Then we seek the source.
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. Truth is ALL encompassing.
We saw in last week’s Torah reading that Joseph’s brothers seemed to live without much guilt all those years after selling him as a slave. They only dared to face the truth after they were beset with terrible troubles when they went down to Egypt to buy food and Joseph accused them of being spies. The truth was not extraneous to them; it was in them.
“They said one to another: "INDEED (aval), we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us." (Genesis 42:21)
The Hebrew word aval (indeed) which initiates the brothers’ long repressed confession is interesting because it can mean many things. The manner in which they used it was honest and free of excuses: “INDEED we are guilty.” Interestingly, the 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 had lost weight; but I wouldn’t have stolen a few bucks from the petty cash if they had paid me more; but I did it because they deserved it. Who said the manufacturing business is dead? We manufacture excuses every day. Instead, we really should be ripping off our masks 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.”
There are no coincidences in God’s holy language. Mourning is the common denominator of 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, and 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 our fault.
It is only when Joseph’s brothers truly repented and came to terms with their misdeeds that Joseph removed his own mask and proclaimed to his brothers "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt, revealing his true identity. (Genesis 45:4)
Instead of getting even with his brothers for their cruelty towards him, he removed an additional mask and reassured them that what had transpired was all part of God’s plan.
And so it is with us all. When we start removing the fake and phony in our lives, search deeply and do teshuva, we will begin to see the Hand of G-d and realize that everything that happens to us is part of a greater plan.