The cycle of Jewish holidays paves the way for an annual voyage of personal growth. From physical liberation during Passover (freedom from Egypt) and spiritual liberation at Shavu’ot (receiving the Torah) to rededication at Chanukah (triumph and miracles) and renewal at Rosh Hashanah (examining our past deeds), any individual yearning for self-discovery can find it within Judaism. Purim is no exception. During Purim, we identify masks, overcome tragedies and discover G-d’s presence.
When I think of Purim, I envision children in costumes celebrating at a carnival, Mishloach Manot (Purim baskets) overflowing with hamentashen and crowds listening to Megilla Esther (The scroll of Esther/Purim story) amidst boos for the evil Haman. It is a holiday filled with joy as we celebrate Jewish victory over an enemy who wanted us destroyed – a repetitious event in Jewish history.
In 1996, I was in Israel at the time of Purim. Hours before the Megilla was to be read, a bomb (another bomb) went off on the number eighteen bus. Nineteen people were killed - two were American students studying at the Beit Sefer (house of learning) where I was supposed to go that evening. After the bombing, there was much discussion amongst the Rabbis as to whether or not the Megilla reading should take place. The answer, in the end, was “yes” and with that, came profound lessons in Purim.
Tragedy has fallen upon the Jewish people repeatedly throughout history. The fact that we still exist is testimony to our ability to overcome and prevail. Both as a group and individually, we cannot move into the future if we continue to dwell on the past. This does not mean forgetting the past – as most of our holidays continue to remind us of what we have overcome – but rising above misfortune and transforming it into something that allows us to move forward and grow.
This was why the Rabbis determined the Megilla must be read. The important lesson of overcoming tragedy could not be ignored. Likewise, the need to connect with G-d during these moments became another insightful lesson.
Often, during devastating times, one of our most difficult tasks is to remain coupled with G-d. During the entire story of Purim, there is not one mention of G-d’s name, not one indication of His presence. This instance in history did not occur in the mere hour or so it takes us to read about it. The entire account actually takes place over nine years, and it is really not until the pieces over the nine years are put together that we can actually sense that G-d was present.
Similarly today, we may not speak to G-d as Moses did, and G-d may not perform plagues on our enemies (at least not that we know of), but G-d’s presence is best detected when we take a proactive stance in that relationship. And, it is in times of great despair that we truly need to reach out.
On Purim, we drink so we do not know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Yet, we sit in our costumes behind masks booing every time Haman’s name is mentioned. Perhaps, it is the mask that allows us to boo without shame, to judge and to differentiate.
Until recently, I believed the lesson found in the Book of Esther was about removing masks. Having the confidence and courage to be who you are. But, if we look closely at the Megilla, we discover a story brimming with concealment, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, the masks of Purim allow us to reveal what is within us. The word Megilla has two meanings. The first, which most of us are familiar with – is “scroll”. The second meaning is “expose”. The name Esther means “hidden”. During Purim, we expose that which is hidden. And, we do this while wearing masks.