Wearing Masks

elegant venetian mask on blue glitter backgroundIT IS COMMON knowledge that actors with Jewish sounding surnames were encouraged to change their names to more “non- Jewish” names. Recently, a U-tube video listed all those whose names were changed, but at the end of the video came a warning: “Now you know who they are; and they are among us.” A little scary in this day and age.

Jews have very often been forced to wear masks because of the hostile environment in which they lived. Today, most of us feel that is unnecessary and refuse to be bullied by hatred and anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, when we think of Purim, the first thing that probably comes to mind is masks and costumes. Did we ever ask ourselves why we dress up on Purim? There is no mention of mask in the Megillah, nor is there any commandment that calls for masquerading. Nonetheless, no Purim celebration is complete without costumes and masks. Why should this be so? What is the connection between Purim and dressing up?

In the Book of Esther disguises and masquerades are portrayed by changes in clothing and statuses. It has three pairs of protagonists, Vashti and Xerxes, Zeresh and Haman, and Mordecai and Esther, as well as the citizens themselves.

Xerxes wears the mask of a tough ruler but is actually ruled by his ministers. Haman, who seeks power and respect, is revealed in all his misery, and his public disgrace is obvious to all when he is hanged in public. Mordecai sits wearing a sack and ashes outside the palace gate and is then presented with royal garments and brought into the palace. The Book of Esther is named after the heroine, one who hides her identity until she puts on “the garments of royalty.” The Jews of Shushan were not as different from Ahashverosh as we would like to believe; they, too, were in costume. They were dressed like all the other citizens of Shushan, with smiles on their faces and drinks in hand. They, too, toasted the king.

Rabbi Gadi Levy, director of adult education at Portland Kollel, in the US state of Oregon, told the Oregonian newspaper that the costumes symbolize how G-d is hidden in all our lives.

“Throughout the year we wear a mask,” Levy said. “Our facial expressions cover who we really are, and our society covers who we really are. On Purim we’re trying to break that. You put on the mask and the inner self is able to explode,” he explained.

It is our practice to cross-dress on Purim – find the other in yourself. Dress up and try on The Scroll of Esther invites you onto the stage and try on the different roles, be Esther’s the queen, be Haman the villain, the king and the assassin. What are the causes for which you would risk giving up your privilege, position, and lifestyle? What about your life? What are the principles or causes for which a person ought to risk his/her life?

Every year on Purim, the holiday created to celebrate the Jews’ salvation, we read the story, make parties, and drink wine. And of course, we do one other thing: we dress up. This is a reminder about how much time we spend dressing up and leading lives that are often incongruent with our inner selves. We place our faith in the masks we wear rather than in who we are.

Our goal as Jews is to find our true clothing and our true selves.

Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

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