Purim and the Masks We Wear
Rabbi Ari D. Kahn
Have you ever been in a situation in which you were afraid to reveal who you really are? Have you ever felt as if you were wearing a mask and dressed up like someone else? This can happen to individuals, but it can also happen to a nation.
One of the results of living in a new place is acculturation. Even when this process is not taken to the extreme level of assimilation, there is still a heavy price to be paid. Even mild acculturation can set off an existential crisis. This is precisely what happened to a large segment of the Jewish people some 2500 years ago: As strangers in a strange land, they did what they felt they had to do to "fit in". And yet, the forces of socialization and acculturation have posed a threat to Jewish identity in so many places throughout history that the story recounted in the Book of Esther transcends the particulars of that very specific time and place.
The Book of Esther is set in what are best described as "interesting times": A new dictator had come to power in Shushan as the result of a bloody coup. King Ahashveroush was celebrating his many conquests, and the acculturated Jews of Shushan found themselves at the epicenter of a celebration of epic proportions. Participation in the revelry was not optional: those who abstained would be accused of sedition. Imagine, then, the discomfort of the Jews at the celebration of Ahashverosh's conquest and subjugation of Jerusalem. When Ahashverosh appeared before his subjects, rowdy and drunk, dressed in the garments of the High Priest of the Jews that he had taken when he sacked the Holy Temple, the Jews must certainly have felt awkward, at the very least. Ahashverosh had shed his "normal" costume – the royal garments he had usurped from his predecessor – in favor of a new costume, in order to underscore his success while at the same time extinguishing the hope for repatriation that many Jews must have harbored. And yet, their discomfort notwithstanding, the Jews of Shushan were not as different from Ahashverosh as we would like to believe: they, too, were in costume. They were dressed like all the other citizens of Shushan, with smiles on their faces and drinks in hand; they, too, toasted the king. How widespread was the acculturation process, and how deep had it penetrated? As for Ahashverosh, neither of his costumes fit him well: not only was he far from being the Kohen Gadol, he was not really regal in any way. His royal clothes did not fit him particularly well, because they had been tailored to the dimensions of the king whom he had deposed.
Queen Vashti had her own take on the costume ball. She was one of Ahashverosh's most important conquests, for it was her royal blood that gave him legitimacy. When he demanded that she appear before the assembled guests without her royal garb, he intended to strip her of the power and nobility that these garments symbolized. He fully intended to humiliate her and remind her that he was now king. She refused to come in costume – for a queen stripped of her clothes would surely be a costume of another sort. She was hastily rendered obsolete.
The king now found himself alone and in desperate need of a new queen. His advisors came up with a wonderful plan: they would have a beauty contest of sorts. Each night a different girl would dress up as queen-for-the- night; in the morning she would be sent away. The "winner" would receive the crown, and be allowed to dress up as the queen on a permanent basis - or at least until the king's next outburst of drunken rage, which was certainly an occupational hazard for women in this line of work.
There was a nice Jewish girl who lived in Shushan whom everyone knew as Esther, but her real name was Haddasah; she, too, was in costume. Esther was forced to participate in this "contest." She alone did not ask for props, special oils or perfumes; apparently, she was quite ambivalent. Unlike all the other contestants, she had no desire to be the queen for this king.
But something interesting happened; of all the women, the one that the king wanted was Esther. Men often want what they cannot have, and the regal Esther, aloof and ambivalent, was strikingly different from all the others (who were probably wearing a bit too much perfume and makeup) who so desperately wished to be chosen that they were trying a bit too hard to catch the king's eye. Esther was regal. She reminded Ahashverosh of his former queen, and she was chosen. In fact, what Ahashverosh saw was no costume: in Esther, who appeared before him as she was, the royalty of Jewish women shone through.
Haman, a cunning, ruthless and manipulative advisor to the king, was a sycophant who used his intelligence to catapult himself above all the other advisors. Haman was a megalomaniac, who decreed that all the king's subjects were to bow before him. Everyone in the kingdom complied, fearing for their lives. Only one man, Mordechai, refused to bow down; as a Jew, Mordechai refused to bow before any man.
Just to make things a little more interesting, this same Mordechai had once alerted the king about an assassination plot, and had earned the king's trust. To further complicate matters, Mordechai also happened to be Esther's cousin and most trusted advisor.
Haman could not bear the affront to his pride. He would have his revenge: not only would he kill Mordechai, he would annihilate all the Jews. The king, who had every good reason to be paranoid, would be easy to convince: Haman need only suggest to the king the dangers posed by this fifth column, this dangerous, subversive group living throughout the kingdom. After making a large donation to the king's coffers, Haman received the king's seal of approval, and the fate of all the Jews in the kingdom was sealed.
When Mordechai heard of the decree, he, too, "dressed up"; he put on sackcloth, clothes of mourning. Esther was appalled: one simply could not sit in the capital wearing clothes of mourning. The king was happy, the people were celebrating; such dress could be interpreted as a symbol of rebellion. She pleaded with Mordechai to be reasonable, but he was adamant, going so far as to suggest that her destiny had now become apparent: She had ascended the throne for the sole purpose of acting on behalf of the Jewish People.
Esther knew what she must do. She must don the clothing of the queen, assume the persona that would gain her entrée into the inner sanctum. The risk was enormous: the king was completely given over to his paranoia; the price he paid for taking the kingdom by force was the torment of seeing conspiracy around every corner. He was so convinced that there were untold others plotting to do precisely what he had done, that he instituted rules for self-preservation: Uninvited guests could be put to death – including the queen.
Esther puts on her royal garb and goes to see the king. She looks stunning. The king is enthralled: Esther, it seems, has finally warmed up to him, and he is willing to fulfill all and any of her wishes. She invites him to join her that night in a special party. And then, almost as an afterthought, she adds: "… and bring Haman along". Esther's plan was exquisitely simple: she pitted Ahashverosh's paranoia against Haman's megalomania. At this point the king's mind is reeling: On the one hand, Esther wants to see him – which, to his mind, is quite understandable, he being the man that he is - but why is Haman invited? His mind races as he prepares for the party. Haman, on the other hand, seems oblivious; he was only too happy to be on the "A list," invited to the most exclusive events.
To increase the pressure, she invites both men to join her again the following evening. Haman is high as a kite, even manic: at last, his greatness is recognized, confirmed for all to see. As he leaves the palace, everyone who sees him bows down, with the exception of one man - Mordechai.
This is enough to set Haman off; he comes home seething. His wonderful day has been ruined by this thorn in his side, Mordechai the Jew. He is advised to hang Mordechai and be done with the court Jew. Haman's depression is replaced by a burst of manic energy: he rushes out to prepare the gallows, and then, at around midnight, comes to see the king – surely not the wisest way to approach a paranoid monarch. Haman has become careless, and he fails to read the fear on Ahashverosh's face, the fear born of paranoia and set in motion by the queen's invitation.
Ahashverosh has spent the evening barely afloat in a sea of doubt and dread. He is certain there is a plot afoot. Are his queen and advisor in cahoots? He cannot sleep; he reviews the royal diary for clues, and is reminded that a man named Mordechai had alerted him to a plot to assassinate him. He studies the plot, perhaps looking for parallels to his current situation, but at the same time he notices that Mordechai was never properly rewarded. At this point, Haman enters, and Ahashverosh asks him, "What should be the proper reward for someone whom the king wishes to honor?" Haman, so caught up in his own narcissism, is convinced that he is the object of the king's favor. He lets down his guard and reveals his true aspirations: "Dress him in the king's clothes and crown, and parade him through the capitol on the king's horse." It is hard to imagine a worse suggestion for this king at this time.
When the king commands Haman, the notorious anti-Semite, to do all these things for Mordechai the Jew, and to personally lead the horse through the streets, Haman is devastated. He will not wear the king's clothes, and he will appear to all who see him as nothing more than the stable hand, the position held by Ahashverosh before he staged his coup. All at once, Haman is cut down to size; in truth, he has only been dressing up as advisor to the king. His true status is far more lowly.
In a sense, the rest of the plot is details: Haman finds his way to the very gallows he made for Mordechai, and the threat against the Jews is averted. The story ends as Esther and Mordechai are dressed in royal clothing.
Every year on Purim, the holiday created to celebrate the Jews' salvation, we read the story, make parties, drink wine. But there is one more custom that is an integral part of the Purim experience: people dress up. Purim is a reminder that we spend so much of our lives dressing up and leading lives that are in dissonance with our souls. We allow our disguises to lull us into a false sense of identity, placing our faith in the masks we wear rather than in the natural beauty of Jewish destiny. Our goal as Jews is to find our true clothing and our true selves, both as individuals and as a nation. This is the clothing of royalty that we hope to reclaim, speedily and in our time.