The Masked You
Undercover in Shushan
Everybody knows there is a minhag (custom) to dress in costumes on Purim. This minhag is not just a silly children’s activity – there is deep significance behind the masks and costumes we wear on Purim.
A mask or costume hides one’s identity. This theme – of hiding one’s identity – is one we find often in Megillat Esther. The most obvious example of this is , Queen Esther herself, who hid her identity in the palace of King Achashverosh. Another example is Harvona, whom we remember for good (“zachur latov”) due to his suggestion to King Achashverosh to hang Haman on the very same tree he designed for Mordechai. Our Rabbis tell us that this was actually Eliyahu Hanavi, who had come disguised as Harvona, a close friend and adviser of Haman, and made the suggestion to the king.
We find in the Purim story that while Haman was leading Mordechai on the King’s horse, Haman’s own daughter mistook her father for Mordechai, and publicly humiliated Haman. According to one explanation, the reason she made this mistake was because Haman had asked Mordechai for permission to don his sackcloth while he led the horse, in order to disguise himself and avoid embarrassment.
There is yet another who hid His identity throughout the Megilla – Hashem himself. Hashem’s name is never actually mentioned in the Megillah; however, the Vilna Gaon explained that every time the Megillah says the word “HaMelech” (the King), even though it seems to be referring to King Achashverosh, it is a veiled reference to the “King of kings” who orchestrated all the events of the Megillah, while hiding Himself behind the scenes. It is for this reason the Talmud says that when the Torah says V’Anochi haster astir panai bayom hahoo (“And I will hide my face on that day” – Devarim, 31:17), it is referring to Purim.
The Jewish people also donned a “mask” throughout the Purim story. The Talmud explains that Haman was given the power to destroy the Jewish people as a punishment for the Jews’ attendance at Achashverosh’s feast. Even though, according to many opinions, the food at the feast was 100% kosher and no halachot were broken, the Jews were guilty of trying to hide their Jewish identity and blend in with the gentiles In order to repent, Esther asked them to fast for three days in order to “remove the food of Achashverosh’s party” from themselves and stop hiding their true identity.
The Power in Purim
The rabbis instruct us that on Purim, “Kol haposhet yad notnim lo – anyone who outstretches his hand, we give him”. Simply speaking, this refers to giving charity on this day, but these words have a secondary message as well – anyone who asks from Heaven on Purim will be answered. The word Kol (“everyone”) –includes even someone who appears before us whose status as a poor man may be questionable. Similarly, even if our outer self might sometimes contradict our inner self, G-d still accepts us and will answer our prayers even more on Purim than He usually does.
Holier than the High Holies
The Arizal teaches that one reason the Torah calls Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, “Yom HaKippurim,” is because Yom Kippur is “K’Purim” (like Purim). By calling Yom Kippur “like Purim,” the Torah implies that even Yom Kippur doesn’t stack up to the holiness of Purim. How can Purim – with its costumes, feasting and drinking – possibly be holier than Yom Kippur?
Getting behind the Mask
Purim is a time where we are given the opportunity to remove our “personal masks” and reveal who we really are. One can connect on this holy day to his deepest, purest intentions in a way of repentance more elevated than Yom Kippur itself. It is for this reason that we have the custom to get drunk on Purim; when a person drinks, he lets go of all of his inhibitions and reveals his true self. The Talmud teaches, “Nichnas yayin yotzei sod” – wine enters and the secrets come out.
The Hebrew word for costume is tachposet which stems from the root word chipus – “search”. Throughout the year, we all behave in many ways which do not reflect who we really are. The word “panim” (face) literally means “aspects” – because there are many aspects to the “face” we put forward, and many aspects to who we really are. On Purim we must “search” beneath the costume in which we hide our true selves, and see through the masks behind which G-d and our fellow Jew hide. We must search for the “understanding of G-d” who is currently hiding behind the mask of galut (exile), and we must simultaneously search for our “true selves” – who we really are and who we really want to be – rather than just accepting the status-quo and carrying on in the way we normally behave. We must also reveal the essence of other people, working to accept others by finding the good and positive in them. Let us learn from the masks of Purim that in reality, it is on this day that we truly reveal ourselves – we were masked all year round!