Of Masks and Plagues
By Andrés Spokoiny
Time has a knack for irony.
The last of Chronos’ practical jokes: making us celebrate a holiday in which we disguise ourselves, in the middle of a global pandemic whose symbol is to be the ubiquitous face mask.
But to be fair, even before coronavirus made them fashionable; the custom of wearing masks to celebrate Purim was always puzzling to me. After all, in the story of Purim, Mordechai and Esther take off their masks; they reveal who they truly are and, by doing that, they save the Jewish people.
And that’s the paradox of any epidemic: People cover their faces, but in fact, something very real about them comes out, something deep that is hidden in “normal” times. Who’s rational and who’s prone to panic, who’s empathetic and who is selfish, who takes leadership and who shirks responsibility, who works with others for the common good and who tramples others to save themselves.
That an epidemic reveals our true faces is the underlying theme of Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” But most literary analysts believe that Camus wasn’t writing about an actual epidemic but that his 1947 novel uses it as a metaphor of another plague that had just spread across Europe: Nazism. There are, in the face of the plague, small acts of heroism and grand acts of cowardice, people who act out of misguided ideology, and people who are simply and quietly doing the right thing.
In the Purim story, when the plague of intolerance invades the kingdom of Persia, the true nature of the protagonists gets exposed: Haman is nothing but a murderous bigot; King Ahasuerus is not a wise monarch but venal, misogynistic, and frivolous; Mordechai is brave, courageous, and wise. Esther wears the mask of the obedient queen, but in truth she’s bold, empathetic, and clever. Esther’s mask also hides her origins: Even the king didn’t know she was Jewish, and it is only when Esther removes that mask and embraces her true identity that her people are saved.
COVID-19 is, sadly, just one of many plagues we are facing right now. The virus of antisemitism has mutated yet again and is making a comeback. We try to contain the outbreak, but we find hard to understand the pathogen and isolate it, let alone find a vaccine. At the same time, all over the world, the bacillus of intolerance, racism, and anti-democratic behavior is spreading. We are unable to quarantine Hungary from the authoritarian trends of Turkey; we can’t prevent Brazil’s populism from spreading into England, and we can’t isolate America and Israel from the sickness that threatens not just democracy but the very fabric of our societies. Social media acts like a “vector of disease,” spreading disinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremism. As with Camus’ plague, nobody is immune: You may think that hatred of Latino Immigrants doesn’t affect you, but it spurs a white nationalist to go on a shooting spree at a Pittsburgh synagogue; criticism of Israel doesn’t just affect Israelis; it spirals into antisemitism and makes life challenging for Jewish students in America; you may think that, personally, you won’t suffer from an autocracy, but when democracy is threatened and sooner or later your personal freedom and prosperity are in jeopardy.
As for how to fight and contain COVID-19, I’ll leave that to the scientists, who will surely find a vaccine, if not a cure. But maybe Purim has something to teach us about the other epidemics we are confronting. These plagues are stripping us of our masks and revealing hidden aspects of our personalities. Is what we see flattering or damning? Facing the antisemitism epidemic, some Jews deploy empathy and call for unity and respect among us, others ‘weaponize’ it to attack other Jews and other ethnic groups. Which one will we be? Facing the threat to democracy, some will indulge their own authoritarian tendencies, others will fight for the values of tolerance, equality and freedom. What will we do? Facing intolerance and extremism in our own Jewish community, which side we’ll we be on?
In both “The Plague” and the Book of Esther, the threat presents a moment of truth. Mordechai poignantly tells Esther: “Perhaps you were made queen for a time such as this.” Esther seizes the moment, drops her mask and fights for her people, saving us all.
If you think about it, those “dropping the mask moments” are the common denominator between most of the greatest things that happened to our people: Moses abandons his Egyptian prince disguise and “goes to his brethren”; Assimilated Theodor Herzl, confronting antisemitism surrounding the Dreyfuss trial rediscovers his Jewish roots and bequeaths us Zionism and Israel. Facing the crisis, they don’t cower, but they don’t become bitter and hateful either; they dig into themselves and find in their roots, the force, the empathy and the goodness they need.
And that, I believe, is why Purim is such a happy holiday. Not only because we were saved, but because we were not afraid to show who we truly were, because adversity made us look into our souls and find the very best of ourselves.
As funders and leaders, we have disproportionate influence in the community. What lies behind our masks is important not just for ourselves but for the community as a whole. When we look back on these times of puzzling epidemics and mutating challenges, will we celebrate our behavior or regret it? Will be proud of what we found behind our masks or will we be ashamed of it?
Camus showed that, in times of plague, many things are beyond our control. But the answer to that question of how we react is fully within our control. Let’s give the next generations, and ourselves, a cause to celebrate!
Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.