I admit that throughout my childhood, I always tried to fit in. In middle school, I was always trying to keep up with the “cool” kids in class. I was listening to the music that they said was cool, watching movies that they claimed were popular, and wearing clothes that were “in.” I am sure that this memory resonates with many of us. Part of the adolescent experience was about trying to fit in. Many of us may not realize it, but as adults, we still too often are stuck doing this. The cool music and movies may be replaced by other material goods, but we are still striving to be someone that society tells us to be. We are conscious of what we say, what we do, and how we look in public because we are concerned with how others will view us. However, if we are only concerned with the perception of another, then we don’t stop to think about how we view ourselves. Are we being true to ourselves or are we simply wearing costumes and hiding who we truly are?
On the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, coinciding this year with March 7th and 8th, we celebrate the festival of Purim. Purim celebrates the Jewish people of Shushan being saved from the evil Haman’s attempt to murder the Jewish community. We honor the heroism of Mordecai and Esther (and revel in Haman’s demise) with food, drinks, and costumes. Some suggest that we wear costumes and masks to recreate the various banquets and masquerades found in Megillat Esther. Additionally, we wear costumes because Esther hides her true identity in our narrative. In order to be queen, she hides her Jewish identity. After all, while her Hebrew name mentioned at the beginning of the Megillah is Hadassah, we all know her as her masked identity: Esther. On Purim, it seems that we acknowledge the masks that each of us wear and the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden.
Masks hide our identities and allow us to be someone completely different, but we do not put on masks on Purim so that we can be someone other than ourselves. Rather, we do so to symbolically acknowledge that there are parts of ourselves that we keep hidden. We all try to “fit in.” Even Esther, who eventually stood up to Haman, changed her name because she too, wanted to be like everyone else. If God wanted us all to fit in and conform, then we would all be exactly the same. We would look the same, have the same talents and skills, and share the same beliefs and thoughts. We are different. We are unique. We are all – in our differences – B’Tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image.
Thus, we do not wear masks on the 14th of Adar so that we can pretend to be someone else. We do so to experience removing these masks on the 15th of Adar. We hide our identities on Purim and pretend to be someone that we are not. On the 15th of Adar however, we remove those masks. We celebrate our differences. We celebrate our uniqueness. We do not try to be someone that others want us to be or expect us to be. Instead, we embrace the opportunities that exist when we are able to be our true selves. May we all dress up and celebrate this Purim! May the message of Purim give us courage to remove the masks that we each wear every day and celebrate our individuality!
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
(This blog post also appears in the March 2012 edition of Jacksonville Jewish Center’s CenterPieces Magazine)