The masked Jews of Purim

What's being hidden behind those masks in the ancient story of Esther?

"Hide your face so that the world will never find you." (Phantom of the Opera)

This is the season of masks, of hiding.  As we know, Purim has a whole other layer to it beyond carnivals, hamentashen, and princess outfits. What's being hidden behind those masks in the ancient story of Esther?

There are lots of mask moments in the story.  It begins with the third year of Aẖashverosh's reign; why so long?  What was he hiding?  Was there instability in his rulership?  Did it take a while to solidify his support, enough to party?  Esther herself-hiding behind a Persian name, hiding who she was to the King and to everyone else she encountered.  Mordechai-also hiding, never showing his identity.  No one could tell he was a Jew; Haman had to be told.  Haman was hiding his true feelings until later in the story. He was pretending to have others' interests at heart, when they were his own. He plots and plans in secret. At one point (7:9), the text tells us his face is covered, when he is dis-covered on the couch with Esther, the Queen. And finally, where is God in all of this?

In fact, I would suggest that the only person who didn't have something to hide was Vashti. (I knew I liked her.)  Tradition tells us that the King had asked her to come before him wearing her crown, wearing "only" her crown.  She refused.  Her independence cost her dearly, but the irony was that she would have rather hid in her room, true to herself, than be exposed completely and be someone she wasn't.  By not covering herself, she came out from behind a mask others wanted her to wear.

Like other Jews, Mordechai and Esther went about their lives, not obviously identified as Jews. Mordechai wasn't wearing payot, or a colorful knit kippah from some recent simcha; he dressed in the equivalent of jeans and a shirt, or maybe a business suit. Esther didn't wear a chai or talk about her Jewish life with the other girls in the harem; in fact, did she live a Jewish life before she entered the palace?  We don't know, but that's just it-to what extent did Mordechai or Esther live a Jewish life behind walls?

Would people know you were Jewish if they met you on the street?  When you meet someone new, how long does it take for them to know you're Jewish?  Do you wear your identity on your sleeve-literally?   We read recently of Aaron's ornate High Priest outfit in Parashat Tetzaveh. It clearly set him apart, and everyone knew exactly who he was and what he did for a living. Clothes and uniforms do that. They become a person's identity. Judges' robes, doctors' coats, exercise clothes, or faded jeans. We make assumptions about the people behind those "masks." Are they the same people when they wear something different? When we wear certain clothes or behave certain ways that easily identify us as Jews, are we also inviting people to make certain assumptions about us? And do those assumptions match who we are when we get home?

Most of us are fortunate not to have to hide who we are, and have to be concerned with being obviously Jewish. Most of us don't have to hide behind a masked identity. Some, however, whether it's their religious, sexual, political or ethnic identity still feel they have to hide. The lesson and challenge of Purim is to make our inside match our outside-like Vashti did. 

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems,

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