Parashat Vayigash: Unmasking

The metaphor for our year is the mask. Wearing it, not wearing it, different kinds of masks, the sense of being hidden and the fear that it connotes.

YEMENITE TORAH scrolls (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Growing up in Philadelphia, I lived down the street from Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev and many other books. He belonged to my father’s synagogue, and I would occasionally get to speak with him about writing and literature. He once told me that every novel has a central metaphor that helps the author think through the problems of the novel, sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden. For The Chosen, it was the baseball game.
The metaphor for our year is the mask. Wearing it, not wearing it, different kinds of masks, the sense of being hidden and the fear that it connotes – all of these themes have been woven throughout the pandemic. Of course, masks as metaphors are an ancient trope indeed. The story of Joseph is full of feints and deceptions and lies that seem like truth alongside truths that seem like lies. Potiphar’s wife’s accusation is a lie that seems true, as is the brothers’ claim that Joseph was eaten by a wild animal. Joseph’s innocence in Potiphar’s house is a truth that seems like a lie, as is Benjamin’s innocence of stealing the royal cup. When Judah, referring to the discovery of the cup, says, “God has uncovered the crime of your servants,” (44:16) it is true, but it is not the crime he thinks; not the theft of the cup but the sale of Joseph.
In Isaiah we read, ״And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the mask that is spread over all nations” (25:7). Revealing people’s genuine personality is a constant theme in the Hebrew Bible. The story of Joseph foreshadows the holiday of masks, Purim, when the unfolding narrative teaches us everyone’s true nature. On Purim as with Joseph, those who begin on the bottom end up on top, a Jew finds his and her way to the corridors of power in a strange land and a non-Jewish ruler is instrumental in enabling the underlying character of others to be discovered.
IN THIS week’s Torah portion, Judah, having grown out of the fecklessness of his youth, shows Joseph who he has become by taking responsibility. His act of unmasking brings Joseph to confess his own identity: “I am Joseph, your brother.”
Genesis is a book of figurative masking and unmasking, all of it the human analogue for the great unmasking – the discovery of God’s presence in the world. Adam and Eve find God in the garden. Abraham in Ur suddenly hears the Divine voice. Jacob lies down at Beth El and discovers God is there. Joseph is thrown into slavery and rises in Egypt, and when his brothers appear, insists that what they are experiencing is the hand of God in history.
We call the central moment of Jewish history at Sinai “revelation.” There is no revelation without previous hiddenness. Hester Panim, God’s hiding God’s own face – the masking of God, in a sense – is a theme throughout the Torah and into modern Jewish theology. There are moments in the Torah when God’s power is manifest – splitting seas and pillars of fire. In the Joseph story, as in the Purim story, it requires vision to discern God’s presence. The tradition speaks of such moments in mystical terms, to peek behind the curtain (pargod), but we may equally think of glimpsing beneath the mask.
When we bless our children with Birkat Kohanim and ask that God’s countenance be lifted to you and shine on you, one understanding of the blessing is that God should be unmasked in your life. You should be blessed to see God’s presence, as Joseph did when he said, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” (45:8) Approaching the end of Genesis, it becomes clear how much is a dialectic of hiddenness and revelation, masking and unmasking. This year has been the year of the mask. May the coming year be the year when we can see one another’s faces again, for to see a human face is the closest we can come in this world to seeing an image of God. ■
The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David: The Divided Heart. Follow him on Twitter @rabbiwolpe.