By Rabbi Steven Henkin
As a child, I used to think of the upcoming holiday of Purim as “the Jewish Halloween.” We give out mishloah manot full of sugary foods (even if it is Hamentashen instead of candy), we get together to celebrate, have a party, and have a great time. And, of course, we dress up in costumes, hiding our true identities, just as we do in October.
The concept of dressing up in costumes or wearing masks on Purim fits right in with the theme of the Book of Esther. Throughout the course of the story, much is hidden that slowly becomes revealed. Esther hides her Jewish identity in the palace; Mordechai’s foiling of an assassination plot is written down and buried in the king’s annals; Haman hides his true hatred for the Jewish people from the king, using an alternate reason for wanting their destruction; even Esther, when she first puts on her feast for King Ahashverosh and Haman, doesn’t immediately reveal her true intentions. Of course, each of these things becomes public in the second half of the story: the king has the annals read when he can’t sleep, and Esther reveals not only her identity but that of the one threatening her people. The rabbis build upon the theme by noting that God is notably absent and not even mentioned in the book. They insist that, like so many other parts of the story, God is hidden but revealed through the action of the story. It is called “a hidden miracle,” because unlike the Exodus from Egypt in which God so obviously plays a role, God causes the miracle to occur behind the scenes, guiding the action without the characters noticing.
We know, however, that just because something is hidden doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because Esther doesn’t admit her Jewish identity to King Ahashverosh doesn’t mean she’s not Jewish, just because the king forgot about Mordechai saving his life doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and just because God is not active and visible doesn’t mean that God is not present. One of the (many) lessons this story teaches us is that what we see on the surface of our world is only part of what exists; there is always more hidden. In this sense, dressing up in costumes and wearing is a perfect way to celebrate the holiday. It is a way of ritually hiding what is beneath the surface, just as the story of Esther does.
For many, though, this concept of dressing up in costume and putting on a mask is something we do every day. It is part of our daily ritual. We hide certain parts of who we are and what we’re thinking so that others won’t see us, judge us, or pity us. For those suffering from mental illness or addiction, putting on a costume or a mask is part of who we are. We put on all sorts of professional costumes to blend in with everyone else, to try to feel normal while we’re at work. We wear an “I’m okay” or “I’m just tired” mask so we do not have to admit – to ourselves or others – that we are not. We smile and laugh to hide the pain we experience. But, just as in the story of Esther, we also recognize that just because it’s hidden, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The voices in our heads that call out to us and the addict’s attempt to fill the emptiness stay underneath the surface.
The challenge that the Book of Esther and Purim issues for us is to see behind the masks. Dressing up in costumes should make us ask what image we want the outside world to see while also making us more aware of what we are hiding underneath. Similarly, seeing others in masks – our friends, family, and members of our community – should make us more aware what we see and hear on a daily basis is only part of the story and that there’s more under the surface. This knowledge allows us to be more supportive, more compassionate, more empathetic, and more caring – even if some of us are still not ready to share what we are hiding.
Purim is a time of dressing up and celebrating, of hiding and revealing. As we observe the holiday this year and put on our costumes and masks, may we become more aware of what we and others are hiding, work together to build a community that can support those who are struggling with mental illness and addiction, and help each other reveal what is underneath the mask.
Rabbi Steven Henkin is the rabbi at Congregation Agudath Achim in Savannah, GA. He is a volunteer and contributor for The Blue Dove Foundation, whose mission is to raise awareness of, end the stigma of, and educate people about mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or addiction, please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness or The Blue Dove Foundation’s resources page.