It is not surprising that the Menkake Gyoretsu, the mask procession of the Goryo shrine in Kamakura, is an intangible asset of Japan. Nothing can be more unique or indeed stranger than the procession of the more than ten masked figures that march with a large following for several hours in the neighborhood of the shrine. The masked figures make for quite a spectacle, making funny gestures and even funny faces (the faces can be seen of the two men wearing dragon masks) as they walk through the streets. Many of the over two hundred year old wooden masks were quite humorous in design, with exaggerated features and expressions. While some were human (or human-featured divinities), others were mythical creatures or monsters.
Seeing this procession has led me to think about masks during this holiday season. Though they cannot be seen, it is my belief that many of us wear masks both in our interactions with others, and even as we look at ourselves. Sometimes the mask can be our occupation, while for others it may exemplify a quality that we aspire to, be it positive or negative. Indeed, wearing of masks may not even be a choice, as it can be imposed by the expectations of a community. I, for example, wear the mask of rabbi (with all that entails) as I interact with congregants, and in the community and maybe even with myself. The variety of these masks we wear was captured in those depicted in the Menkake Gyoretsu procession. Some were noble and some monsters, but each was exaggerated out of all reality.
In many cultures the ceremonial wearing of the mask transforms the wearer. For the Hopi and Zuni, by way of example, the Kachina dancer embodies the god for the duration of the dance. When the mask is removed, however, the dancer returns to himself. During this holiday season I believe that it is important for each of us to engage in introspection, and to consider the masks we wear. Whether positive or negative, we need to take the time to see ourselves for whom we truly are. It is that person who needs to grow and improve through the process of teshuvah during the high holidays. Even a positive mask is still an illusion, unless we ourselves in our essence attempt to truly embody that value.
The ritual masks of the procession also exemplify a separate truth. As they wear the masks, the marchers loose their identity, and now embody the values expressed through the masks, be they monstrous or noble. The masks therefore reveal truths that are often hidden. In the same way, though the Eternal is beyond all knowledge and apprehension, the world of materiality can be a mask through which the divine is revealed to us. In the Tanya the Alter Rebbe teaches that though God is beyond understanding, God can be experienced though his/her garments, that is to say the world of creation. Therefore when we see a flower or the face of a child, we can, if we open our hearts and minds, experience a truth of the divine. We therefore show love for God when we show love to another human or respect for the world around us.
Even here, however, there is a danger. We must still be careful not to mistake the mask for the reality. Too often it is tempting to take the image (the mask) that we have for God, determining it is an absolute for us, our tradition or even all humanity.