A Mask of Filial Piety

January 17, 2008
By Ethan Ross, Scarsdale, NY

My alarm clock rings, its 11:00 on Thursday morning. I sluggishly get out of bed, stumble into the bathroom, and get into the shower. The cold water drips down my body as I slowly wake up. It’s Rosh Hashanah today, one of the holiest holidays of the Jewish year. My family and I are planning to leave the house for temple in 30 minutes. I walk into my room and put on my “temple clothes,” a monochromatic blue striped suit, with a blue shirt and a blue tie patterned with diagonal lines of a slightly lighter hue. My clothing matches my morose mood, for although many, including my family, love the high holidays (as they are called); I have never been ebullient about them. My reasoning is simple, I do not believe in God, nor do I revel in sitting in temple for two hours. But even though I detest the holidays, I feel compelled to act zealous or at least lively, out of respect for my parents and family.
The clock approaches 11:45, the time of our departure, so our family begins to pile into the mini van. All of us wait in the car for mom, who, being the only woman in the family, takes longer than the rest of us to get dressed, and thus makes us consistently late. Before we leave I scream “Wait, I need to go to the bathroom,” and rush into the house. However, instead of heading for the bathroom I go up to my room and take out of my backpack “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the two English papers assigned for reading that weekend. Stealthily, I fold the papers and shove them into my pocket as I race down the stairs, yelling, “I’m ready, let’s go!”
As we pull up to temple I wear a physiognomy of polite gaiety, concealing my inner emotions of boredom and disdain. We get out of the car and come upon a group of fellow temple-goers, whom we courteously greet with handshakes and hellos. It’s a nice day outside, the sun is shining and a warm breeze drifts through the air, as if to signify the last evanescent traces of summer gently fading away. The transition from summer to fall saddens me, and I equate the coming of Rosh Hashanah with the going of summertime…and fun. In my mind the Jewish high holidays symbolize the start of a long and tedious school year, analogous to the long and tedious service that I am forced to sit through on Rosh Hashanah. But although my innards are a sea of agitation and turbulence, my outward appearance is like that of a filial child, joyously accompanying his parents to temple.
Eventually we go inside and take our seats. My father sits on the far right, with my mother next to him, following after is my youngest brother, succeeded my other younger brother, and finally I take my seat on the far left as the oldest child. The rabbi begins reading and I casually open my prayer book. Expeditiously, I slip “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” out of my pocket and into the center of the prayer book. Since two hours of my day are going to waste in temple, I figure that I might as well get some homework out of the way while I’m there. So, I sit in temple, reading about the vengeful wrath of the Christian God, while the congregation around me chants prayers about the greatness of the merciful and forgiving Jewish God. After I finished reading about John Edwards’s fiery sermon, I put “The Minister’s Black Veil” inside my prayer book. Unlike the first reading, I found this story genuinely interesting, and at that time, had any suspicious onlooker been watching me, they would have mistaken me for a devout Jew, fixedly reading the prayers. I found it slightly ironic that what I wished to conceal, actually aided me in my concealment.
I finished that story just in time to listen to the rabbi’s sermon, which is the only part of the service that I find remotely entertaining. His sermon was about neo-atheism, and the recent myriad of best selling books written about the dangers of religion. I found this speech profoundly interesting because the ideas expressed in the books he described mirrored my own conceptions of religion. The rabbi then went on to refute the main arguments of the neo-atheist theory, however, I found his straw man more convincing then his rebuttal. I left that service with a more genial outlook towards temple, and a desire to read a book called “God is Not Great.”
The ephemeral mask I had been wearing waned as I discussed the sermon with my parents on the drive home and rationally articulated my point of view on the subject. It was palliating to finally express my true feelings. I felt as if the weight of the day had been lifted and I was now free to enjoy the rest of the holiday. I managed to wear the mask of pietism for the day out of respect for my parents. However, in feigning religious interest, I fulfilled my scriptural duty of filial piety by honoring my parent’s wishes. In the end I’m unsure about which path I should have chosen. Should I have lied to make my parents happy, or should I have been honest and brought them disappointment? Either way, it gave me a sin to repent for on the following weekend...Yom Kippur.

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