Human beings need social interaction to exist on many levels: personal relationships, including family and friends and professionals, including business and academic interactions, and so forth. A lack of physical affection can actually kill babies.
But touch is even more vital than this: Babies who are not held, nuzzled, and hugged enough can stop growing, and if the situation lasts long enough, even die
We are now bearing witness to the difficulties and challenges related to Covid-19 that have struck people throughout the world.
The world of ZOOM and other meeting/teaching platforms have exploded to meet the needs of social interaction, a continuation of business meetings, and teaching from pre-school to graduate programs.
As is true regarding everything in life, nothing is perfect, and ZOOM, which is great, gives each individual participant options to mute oneself and to turn off the video, leaving a black screen with just a name identifying the person. There are many advantages to this for the participant. He/she can take phone calls, eat and drink without disturbing others, and play games instead of focus on the Zoom class.
The shutting down of the video camera decreases and almost eliminates the connection that we so desire and cherish. The ability to see a person’s face allows for a meaningful ‘connection’ to each participant. Without, Zoom becomes just a taped Youtube class.
Jewish tradition teaches that there is no comparison between hearing and seeing the face of a person. The Kabbalists explain the Hebrew word for face is panim which can also be translated as inward. A person’s face reflects what is inside of that individual’s being; by looking at someone’s face we are able to view the essence of that person. Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to see Hashem panim el panim, face to face. The desire was not to see what God looks like (because Hashem is not a physical being) but rather to see the essence of What Hashem is.
This gift that Hashem has instilled within human beings, the gift of seeing/reading the face of those with whom we are communicating, is now minimized by our situation to make do with something that compromises the natural way.
The law in Israel is we now wear masks to avoid potential transmission of Covid-19 from person to person. The expression a person has on his/her face and particularly the expressions emitted by the mouth speaks volumes. If you do not believe me, just take a look at how many emoji faces there are on your phone.
While the expression the eyes are the entranceway to the soul and the eyes definitely give a direction as to an individual’s point-of-view, it is the mouth that gives support to the entire face. The mouth controls the description of the face, shaping the message to transmit happiness, sorrow, anger, excitement, etc. We communicate not only by speaking, or through the use of sign language, but also through facial and mouthing expressions. I, and I’m sure many of you, know how to communicate with one’s mouth without emitting a single sound.
How does one give Zdeka (charity) when you have nothing to give. You give a smile, and the other reciprocates and smiles back. The acknowledgment and recognition a person gives to someone else makes the other feel good, as if he or she were receiving something warm, something to be cherished. A smile is contagious; an outgoing smile is reflected upon the recipient’s face, shining back to the person who sent it.
In short, the smiles given are reflections of the sender. Nowadays, when I venture out, I am only able to see another’s eyes and eyes alone cannot be read. It is the combination of eyes with the mouth which sends the messages, but when the mouth is covered, we are prevented from adequately being able to convey or receive such nonverbal messages.
I try to show courtesy and pleasantness to those around me, Jew and gentile alike. Wearing a mask, I find it very difficult to transmit a friendly feeling to another human being. Additionally, I tend to use the ability to read someone’s mouth to connect to the person.
In the book of Leviticus, the Rabbis teach ten different reasons or sins why a person would develop Tzoraas and end up being quarantined outside the camp of the Jewish people. The number one or most famous reason was the speaking of Loshon Hora (something we call evil speech). This is a direct result of someone’s wrongful speech and the misuse of the gift of the mouth, forcing a person to ‘cover’ that mouth and face by being sent away and not being a part of the nation of Israel.
So often, we read sections of the Torah that we think are outdated and do not apply to us in our time. One obvious example is Tzoraas, the spiritual leprosy that we do not see and therefore cannot check today. Nevertheless, this message and the relevance of Tzoraas are alive and well today in our midst, particularly as we ‘protect’ ourselves by wearing a mask. Perhaps the wearing of a mask today or using a ZOOM screen when interacting is not just hiding or preventing the spreading of a virus.
I would say it’s the message that we may be guilty as well of the sins that lead to Tzoraas; the result of wearing a mask and observing social distancing is to give us time to reflect that just maybe we may have something like Tzoraas. The actual physical affliction does not appear, but the effect of it may be making its way inside through a hidden, masked cover-up preventing us from truly ‘seeing’ and smiling at each other.
Since we talked of smiles, we need a joke.
A Killer Service
One Saturday morning, the rabbi noticed little David staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names and small flags were mounted on either side. The seven year old had been staring at the plaque for some time and finally asked the rabbi, “Rabbi, what is this?”
“Well David, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.”
“Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little David’s voice was barely audible when he asked, “Which one the Friday night, or Saturday service?”