A Pandemic Makeover

April 10, 2021

Author(s): Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger,

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Parshat Shmini
April 10, 2021 — 28 Nisan 5781
A Pandemic Makeover
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


I heard a story on NPR this week that kind of blew my mind. They were talking about how, since the start of the pandemic, requests for plastic surgery procedures have gone up something like 85%. Plastic surgeons shared that they are getting so many more requests that they have had to hire additional people just to field those phone calls. They are working overtime, late into the night, trying to accommodate everyone. And what is so interesting is they are getting requests for procedures that did not used to be so popular. People are looking to tighten their jawlines, adjust their nostrils, tighten their necks, and bodywork as well. And when people reach out, nine out of ten people share that they’re reaching out because of ZOOM. Because now that they’re on ZOOM all day long, they’re looking at their faces and they’re noticing the way they look when they talk, when they interact, when they work.  They’re noticing places they never knew they wanted to improve.

At first, I thought, “this is ridiculous, it’s ZOOM! ZOOM just makes everybody look bad” But then I started to reflect on an experience that I’ve had during the pandemic which has opened my eyes in a new way.

I grew up in a family that really valued makeup, getting dressed, and getting glammed up to go out. My gram used to get dressed up with perfect makeup and she called it being “just so.”  When I was little, I used to sit in the bathroom watching my mom as she put on her makeup: curling her eyelashes so they would arch perfectly before darkening them with mascara. I used to admire her artistry, the beauty that she could create. And I dreamed.  I wanted to join that world.  I wanted to participate in that ritual.

I started wearing makeup at age 12 and immediately fell in love with the ritual. I loved the experience of waking up early, assessing my reflection in the mirror, and deciding how I wanted to change my face. I had the power to cover up my dark under-eye circles. I had the power to add brightness to my eyes, to add glitter to my eyeliner, to make my eyelashes seem longer. I could craft exactly the face I wanted to present to the world. And that meant that nobody ever saw me in my raw form. They saw the part of me that I wanted to share with the world. I had control over my image. I never had to be fully vulnerable.

When the pandemic hit, I got this weird eye infection. Suddenly, I couldn’t wear makeup. It was hard; harder than I wanted to admit. I immediately switched to glasses to cover as much of my eyes as I could. I worried about what people would think when they saw what my face really looks like. I worried they might not be able to find my eyes because my under-eye circles were getting so dark.

But, as time went on, I started to realize the ways in which makeup had really prevented me from being comfortable with a deep part of myself and with sharing that. I think that is something we all do in one way or another. Whenever we go out into the world, we want to curate our image. We want people to see us for our strengths, we want people to see us as beautiful, and wise, and strong. We want to hide away our vulnerabilities. We work so hard to show our strengths, to show our beauty. But when we ourselves look in the mirror, we often see our flaws before we see our own beauty. We see our own struggles, before we see our strengths.

Moses lives this truth. When God reaches out to Moses, asking him to lead the people out of Egypt, Moses demurs.  He says, “God, I can’t be the leader of the people. I have this weakness, I have this vulnerability, I do not speak perfectly. I do not speak beautifully; I have this speech impediment. And the people are going to hear the way that I speak, and they are going to think I am weak. They are going to think I’m incapable and they’re never going to follow me out of Egypt.” And God says to Moses, “don’t you know I’m picking you because of you? Because of who you are? Don’t you know that I am the one that put that speech into your mouth, that I’m the one that created your lips, that I am the one that created your tongue, I created you as you are for a reason.”

But Moses is scared. He does not want people to see his speech impediment. He does not want people to see his vulnerability. And so, he works out some make-up with God. He works it out so that he will be able to stand there, strong, and proud and mighty. So strong in fact that he does not even speak for himself. He has Aaron for that. And while Aaron serves as his mouthpiece, Moses can hold his image of being totally put together. Totally beautiful, totally strong, no one will see him. Most of the time, that works.  But every once in a while, Moses does have to speak. And what is so interesting is that the very thing that Moses worries so much about—that when people hear him speak, they will think he is weak or incapable—that never happens. The people never hear him talk and say, “oh no, our leader speaks differently! Oh no, our leader has vulnerability! I don’t think we can follow him.” They see him for his strengths. They see him for what he does. That is all they focus on. And frankly, that is all we focus on. When we talk about Moses, we talk about Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest teacher of Torah, the one that could speak face to face with God. But Moses could never see that about himself.

As we start to move towards the end of this pandemic, we are all carrying some level of anxiety. What will it be like when we come back together? Will people recognize me? Will they still know me? Are people going to see the way this year has worn on me? This year has literally forced me to look at myself in the computer screen every single day. This year has forced me to look at my own vulnerability every single day. To feel my loneliness, to feel my disconnection, to feel my questions and anxieties. How will I function in a post-pandemic world? And how will I function when I cannot control what people see of me? When I cannot turn on and off my camera? When people can just see me? How are we going to make it?

To these questions, Moses is our teacher.  If he were here, he would say, “don’t worry, God has placed each one of us on this planet for a reason. We have been deployed here on a mission. Yes, we have our strengths, yes, we have our beauty, yes, we have our wisdom, yes, we have the skills to achieve, but we also have our vulnerabilities. Our weaknesses, which open our heart and sometimes even prepare us to do the very work for which we were sent.”

It’s time for all of us to look in the mirror. To see all of who we are—our strengths and our weaknesses.  And to say to ourselves, “yes, you can.”