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Behind Our Masks

Rabbi Safran (center) with his Yerushalmi hat, circa 1982.

Rabbi Safran (center) with his Yerushalmi hat, circa 1982.

Who am I?

In the musical “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean was a good and decent man who stole a loaf of bread to feed his family. Imprisoned for his crime, he is given a chance to become good and decent again only to have events he has long sought to escape come back to threaten him time and time again. To protect his hidden status, he need only allow Javert, the police detective, to take another into custody in his stead. But what kind of person could allow such a thing to happen? And so he sings “Who am I?” – giving voice to that deepest of human needs, to know who we truly are.

Who am I? We are all called to ask that question and yet we wear masks, figurative and real. They hide who we are, our emotions and personalities. They sometimes reveal, but most often disguise, conceal, deceive, pretend, protect and allow the wearer to not be “who he is.”

But if masks are so clearly deceitful, why do we wear them on Purim? What is it that we hide and disguise on this holiday?

Pesach, Sukkot, Chanukah recall obvious miracles, miracles defined by their “unnaturalness.” But on Purim, even the miracle was “disguised” as natural, as if to suggest that God can “wear a mask” and remain concealed within natural, everyday events. The plot is familiar. King inviteUserss wife to ball, she doesn’t show, she is eliminated, evil minister plots against the Jews, king remarries, she happens to be Jewish, she arranges to annul decree… These seemingly natural events conceal the true Manhig Who is very involved. True, there are no plagues, no boils or darkness, but there is just as certainly the Hand of God at work.

God proclaims in the Torah “Anochi haster astir” – “I shall hide My face.” Yes, there are times when God is hidden, when it is not apparent that He is involved in every minute of history.

On Purim all are commanded to give to those whose hand is outstretched. To minimize the shame of the poor, we wear a mask – so the pauper doesn’t need to “face me.” Indeed, the Purim story ends with Mordechai and Esther both dressed in royal clothing.

Imagine – a story that begins with Esther as the only candidate who does not “beautify” herself with makeup and perfumes, and with Mordechai wrapped in sackcloth praying for his people, closes with both in such impressive costumes! Who but God could author such a “masquerade”?

But then, what of our masks? There are those whose lives are lived behind masks, hiding from others, hiding from themselves. There are those in the Jewish community who don’t seem to know who they are so they wear masks on their faces – masks of their choosing or masks imposed upon them. As the Yiddish song goes, A ganz yahr Purim – It’s Purim all year. They fool most people most of the time. But they suffer! “I want out! I want to get an education. I want to be an enlightened member of society. I want to be somebody! I want to be me!”

No man can show one face to others and another to himself and not lose track of which is the real one. Too many people live their lives being a person they are expected to be – being somebody else.

On Purim, we are called to masquerade behind “the other one.” On Purim, we join hands with God and identify with the natural course of events. How much easier to be “with nature” than with the awesomeness of parting the sea. How much easier to have God work “behind the scenes.” But unlike man, whether hidden or obvious, He is the One God. The God of Pesach is the God of Purim. But we are lost in our hiddenness, losing our sense of self in favor of a version expected by everyone else.

But if masks are so negative, how can we be permitted to wear them, even for just one day?

On Purim our masks are made sacred by Yom Kippur, because Purim K’purim – the ba’alei Kabbalah teach that Yom Hakipurim is like Purim. Frivolity is the same as awesome spirituality. The two are integrated within one human being, a being made up of smiles and tears, memories and dreams, fears and hopes, body and soul. Neither can exist without the balance of the other. No Purim without Kipurim; no Kipurim without Purim.

Joy and solemnity. Do not the bride and groom fast and recite Al Chet? Do they not sing and dance? Life is Kipurim and Purim together, in balance. The frivolity of Purim is ushered in by Ta’anis Esther. Yom Kippur concludes with the building of the Sukkah.

We do not “hide” on Purim. We embrace the complexity of what it is to be human – as we should every day of the year. We must all be real every day. No one should fear what he or she loves – Torah, halacha, education, the state of Israel, a relationship with society at large. These things need never be in conflict.

Many years ago, when I had more energy and less body mass, I was an all-around Purim cheerleader. I danced, sang, clapped, lifted children up on my shoulders. I leapt atop tables, chairs, stages – anything to see the happiness on the faces of beautiful Jewish kinderlach in Pittsburgh.

Even in my youth, I was exhausted for days after the celebrations at the Hillel Academy that followed megillah laining at our Poale Zedeck synagogue. Not just the dancing and singing, my Purim celebration included a Yerushalmi kapote and a Yerushalmi hat gifted to me by a Yerushalmi Yid. That hat was my prize possession, as dear to me as gold and diamonds. It came out only for very special family simchas, like the weddings of my nieces Leora and Debbie, and for Purim. My Yerushalmi hat always came out for the Purim merriment. The rest of the year I wore my dignified suit, tie and hat. But on Purim… all that went by the wayside as my Yerushalmi hat made my Purim joy and happiness obvious.

Until one Purim night.

I do not recall the year. I was singing, dancing, jumping and, sweating. Just joy and happiness. One child on my shoulders after another. What happiness! And then, the little boy on my shoulders – he could not have been older than six – began to cry.

What could make this little Israeli boy cry? His father, not very religious, had brought him to celebrate Purim in a warm and embracing Pittsburgh community, where all were as one, caring for one another, non-judgmental. And all of a sudden, this cute little boy began to cry and shout. It took a moment for me to understand his sobbing plea. Ani rotzeh et ha’kova shel ha’rav – I want the rabbi’s hat!

What could I do? This little boy did not want just any hat. He wanted my Yerushalmi hat. What would I do? How would I be my “Purim self” without my hat? Without my Purim hat, how could I be Rabbi Safran on Purim?

The little boy could not understand my dilemma. He only knew what he knew, which was that he wanted the kova shel ha’rav. I whipped the hat off my head and put it on his. His tears immediately vanished, replaced by a broad smile.

In truth, I have missed my hat – this precious gift from Reb Avramal’e Freund, zl, that I delighted in so dearly. But I gave it away – to a child I did not even know!

Do you think it is silly that I think of that hat often? That I wonder about giving it away to a stranger? It has taken a long time to realize that as much as I loved that hat, it was not the real me.

It was a costume, a mask, which allowed me, its wearer, to act out of character, to have a new persona.

Imagine, a hat conferring such a thing. But we see it to be so every day. A shtreimel in communities of yesteryear spoke of impeccable spiritual purity, devotion, and holiness. Those who lived every day in the garb of yesteryear were renowned for everything sacred and pure.

After all, how many Yidden in the shtetl of old wore a shtreimel? So very few. Yet where I live today, who does not wear a shtreimel? Only strangers to the community.

Is it a costume or a true reflection of your inner being? Be real! Don’t wear what is not the real you. If your hat speaks to a certain hashkafa, be sure that every facet of your life is true to that hat. If your hat bespeaks perishut as the Yerushalmi hat once did, then be sure that you live with that perishut in all facets of your life. And if you wear a shtreimel

Which gets me to wondering: Who is wearing my Yerushalmi hat this Purim? Is he singing and dancing with all his heart and soul, embracing the joy of the holiday?

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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