Wearing the Mask of Hypocrisy

Yeshua emphasized this point to his disciples:

If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46–47)

This is a challenge. How do we pretend to like someone when we really don’t? People today are all about “being real,” even if it’s ugly (very ugly in some cases). People don’t want to put on a mask, because they believe it would hypocritical. Until recently, when someone greets you with the obligatory, “How are you?” the standard response has been, “Fine. Thank you. And you?” Today, we are being bombarded with the concept that so say you are fine when you’re really not is hypocrisy. When someone asks, “How are you?” and you are frustrated, moody, or irritated, we feel that an unfiltered response is more genuine: “I’m in a foul mood and I don’t feel like talking.” As we attempt to engage in a casual greeting, the niceties are forgone and we are slapped in the face with the raw, open wound of the other. It doesn’t feel good, and it is actually contagious. It has the ability to soil the cheerful mood we were in and send us on a downward path towards negativity and depression for the rest of the day.

Should we be so honest with others when we’re in a bad mood? Or should we put on a mask and use a little hypocrisy to our advantage? Let me explain.

Our challenge when studying Pirkei Avot is to bring our doing into alignment with our hearing, as we are instructed by James, the brother of our Master. To merely hear or study the Word of Hashem brings one into accountability; whereas obedience to the Word brings one into the Divine Presence, creating kesher, connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, blessed is He. Yeshua chastised the religious leaders of his day for the sin of hypocrisy. Their outside didn’t reflect their inside. On the outside they appeared to be pious and holy. But on the inside, they were “full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” Yeshua’s rebuke against their hypocrisy was harsh:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!


Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous… (Matthew 23:23–29)

Shammai, known for his strict, no-nonsense temperament taught his disciples, “Receive all men with a cheerful face.” The two main stories about him that are passed down to us are to contrast his temperament with that of Hillel. In both stories he chastises a would-be convert and runs him off with a good scolding. At first glance at this mishnah, we are caught off guard. It seems this teaching may possibly be misplaced. Was Shammai truly the author of a saying as compassionate as this? Or has it been placed on his lips by later redactors? If this teaching originated with Shammai, was he simply a hypocrite like those Yeshua rebuked? Hypocrisy is a disease that must be rooted out among the people of God. But are all forms of hypocrisy bad? 

Sometimes we have to be hypocritical in order to ferret out hypocrisy. What do I mean? Yeshua told his disciples to love and greet people whom we naturally would not have any desire to do so. We not “feel” like greeting a person who has been a thorn in our flesh or has hurt us deeply. Most of the time we simply want to avoid them at all costs. But Yeshua tells us that when we have an encounter with them we should show them kindness and greet them warmly. It seems Shammai believed in this same principle. As Telushkin observes, “Shammai knew he had an irascible nature and, to his credit, formulated this teaching to remind himself to behave amicably.”  Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis relates a story where she teaches this principle. 

A couple had come to Rebbetzin Jungreis to ask for help because they were at the end of their rope. They were in the process of losing everything and didn’t know where to turn or what to do. Someone suggested going and talking to the Rebbetzin and they had reluctantly agreed. While talking to her the wife brought up the fact that her husband was always “moody” and never had a smile on his face. The Rebbetzin suggested that one of the things he needed to do as part of his tikkun was to start putting a smile on his face. He immediately baulked, saying that he had no reason to put a smile on his face when his life was falling apart. She responded by telling him that it was his job to wear a smile as his “mask.” Even though he didn’t feel like it, he was responsible to wear it, nonetheless.

She then began relating a story about her husband and—although he was a Holocaust survivor who had lost many family members to the wickedness of the Nazis and he had many troubles throughout his life—how she never saw him without a smile. He was a rabbi and realized his responsibility to the the tone and the example for others. “He understood that his face was public property, that it is wrong to inflict negative moods on others.” She continued to explain to this couple and gave them the following illustration:

I'm sure that you will agree … that it is ill-mannered to sneeze or cough on someone and spread germs. Well, it is even more damaging to crush another's spirit by inflicting an angry or moody expression. Therefore, our sages instruct us, “Greet every person with a pleasant countenance” (Mishna). That's the mask you have to wear … so whenever you come in contact with others, force yourself to smile, and if you prevail, you will discover an added blessing—others will smile back at you and their warmth will be reflected in your heart. “As water reflects your face, so one heart reflects another” is a teaching of King Solomon.

Just as she illustrates, most of us don’t realize the damage we inflict on others because of our carelessness, our mood, or our outright negative attitude towards a person. Each person is made in the image of our Creator, a reflection of Him in some capacity. Therefore, they are worthy of our effort to receive them with a “pleasant demeanor” simply because they have been made in the image of God if for no other reason. It’s easy to wear our feelings on our sleeves. It’s more difficult to restrain ourselves and think about the damage we can do to others. Judaism believes that our actions are more powerful than our beliefs. Where we may have a belief, we may or may not act on it. An action, however, if repeated with consistency, can work its way into a person to forge a new paradigm or identity. With this in mind, we must strive to “put on our mask” of pleasantness even if it feels hypocritical. If we do it long enough, and frequent enough, we may just find that our hypocritical actions don’t feel so hypocritical anymore, but are a genuine reflection of our heart.