Why We Wear Masks

Purim is our most fun holiday, celebrated with parties, food and drinking, giving each other gifts of baked goods and candy, and by wearing costumes and masks.  But even a day of fun on the Jewish calendar contains some serious and important lessons.  Wearing a mask on Purim can teach us something about how to live in the world.

No one is certain of the reason for wearing costumes, and especially masks, on Purim.  Some suggest it is reminiscent of the parties that Esther held for King Achashverosh and Haman, occasions she used to reveal Haman’s plot to kill the Jews and save our people from destruction.  Others suggest it is indicative of the “hidden face of God,” an idea found in the Book of Deuteronomy (31:18) where God declares that He will “hide His face” because the people don’t trust in Him.  The Book of Esther is one of only two Biblical books that do not contain the name of God.  Despite the omission, the Talmudic sages included it in the Biblical canon and taught that there was a reason God’s name is omitted.  Sometimes the presence of God is not obvious.  Like the director of a play who stands in the shadows and is nowhere to be seen on the night of a performance, sometimes the Divine presence is hidden, even if the miracles that sustain us are evident.  So it is with the story of Esther, said the rabbis, in that it teaches us that God is present in our lives and in the world in ways that cannot be discerned overtly.

Wearing a mask on Purim also can remind us that there are times when our own identity should rightly be hidden.  We should do certain things not because we get credit or are seen doing them, but because it’s right to do them.  Our pleasure and gratification should come from the knowledge that we have done something that helps another person.  Wearing a mask on Purim emphasizes that certain acts should be done anonymously, especially the act of tzedakah.

Purim affords us the opportunity not only to celebrate and have a good time, but to help the needy.  There are four mitzvot associated with Purim.  Three of these are well known: hearing the Megillah being read, giving each other gifts of baked goods and candy, and having a Purim meal on the afternoon of the holiday.  The fourth Mitzvah may be the least familiar but is no less important:  giving to the needy, or Matanot La-Evyonim.  This is our response to injustice and cruelty—working to make the world a bit more whole and to remove a small measure of the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings.  Oheb Shalom’s teen community and Social Action Committee will help us to perform this Mitzvah on Purim eve by preparing 200 boxed meals that will be delivered to the Willing Hearts Community Care Center in Newark.

Purim teaches us that such acts, on this day of celebration, or any day of the year, should be performed quietly, purposefully and, equally important, without seeking attention or credit for doing something helpful and virtuous.  Perhaps that’s the most compelling symbol behind wearing a mask.

I hope you will join us for a wonderful Purim celebration that begins on Saturday, March 11 at 6:15 PM.  We have transformed the synagogue into the Village of Shushan, and we await your arrival!

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