Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

All the world’s a screen

“You look gorgeous!”
“Who are you wearing?”
“What did you think of her dress?”

The 2015 Oscars, which just took place this past Sunday, are just as much about the Red Carpet as they are about the awards ceremony itself. As the celebrated actors walk past the cameras and flash bulbs, the story is always about their clothes and how phenomenal they look – or not.

The actors parade by. The television personalities pass judgment. Ryan Seacrest has a comment about this one’s outfit. Kelly Osbourne is impressed with that one’s fashion statement. Khloe Kardashian thinks so-and-so’s selection is a mistake. It’s a veritable pageant.

The first part, outside the venue, is about people’s looks. The second part of the event, inside the venue, is about acknowledging people’s talents – those of the actors, the writers, the directors, and others. What an interesting contrast. Outside, it’s about their outward appearance; inside, it’s about the content of their work.

Yet, even in the Main Event, appearance still matters a great deal. After all, the Oscars is about the movies – generally, stories in which actors put on costumes and play make-believe. Indeed, everyone plays dressup.

I suppose it’s a little like Purim.

The Purim Masquerade

Next week, Jews around the world will celebrate Purim by, among other things, playing dressup. When I was a kid, only children put on costumes but now, even adults do it. Hey, why not? If you get into the spirit of it, if you go all out and put on a costume, it can be a lot of fun.

At my congregation, Hamilton’s Beth Jacob Synagogue, this year’s theme is “The Wild West”. I haven’t picked out a costume yet. I could go as my favourite cowboy, Lucky Luke, but would anyone know who he is? Going as an Indian, as I used to when I was very little, could be politically incorrect. Or I could be clever and dress up like a saloon somehow.

Whatever I decide, I know I won’t be the only one putting on a costume. We’re all doing it. It’s part of the fun. It’s part of the scene. In Hollywood, they get dressed up for their film roles. They also get dressed up in a different way for the Red Carpet at the Oscars. On Purim, we get dressed up, too.

We recall how Queen Esther played a starring role in her eponymous Biblical story. We recall how she hid her true identity. She masked her Jewish identity and eventually – and courageously – revealed the truth. Just as she wore a mask of sorts, we, too, join her in the masquerade.

My favourite rock group is KISS, with its Jewish founders and leaders, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. And boy, do they get dressed up! For them, every day is Purim. Every day is a costume parade! Every day is a day when they mask their faces and choose how the world will look at them. For my “Wild West Purim”, do you think I could get dressed as KISS meets STAR TREK and claim that it’s the Wild West of space, that other frontier?

That's me on the far right!
That’s me on the far right!

Costume Design in Parashat Tetzaveh

Playing dressup also extends to this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tetzaveh.

As Aaron and his sons are ordained into the priesthood, the kehuna, great attention is paid to the vestments they are to wear. God instructs Moses: “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” (Exodus 28:2) Details are given about the breastpiece, the ephod, the robe, the tunic, the headdress, and the sash that Aaron and his sons are to don as priests, as kohanim. Many verses are dedicated to how each of these costume pieces are to look and how they are to be fabricated.

So here’s a surprise for many of us in this day and age: appearances matter!

It’s not just what’s in our heart. At least, not for those who are to serve God. They have a sacred role to play. Not only that, but it’s also a public one. All eyes are on them. They must be aware of their public function. The masses will watch them and will be aware that these individuals are in service to God.

Outward Appearances – Who Cares?

But come on! Surely God doesn’t really care what we wear and how we look! That would be superficial to say the least. Vanity of vanities!

The truth is that it doesn’t matter if God cares or not. WE CARE. Human beings care. Society cares. Whether or not society should care is irrelevant. Society does care. We all do.

This isn’t all about clothes. It’s about how we present ourselves to the world. It’s about how we conduct ourselves. It’s about what role we choose to play in this world. To misquote Shakespeare, “All the world’s a screen, and all the men and women merely actors.”

As I mentioned, my synagogue’s Purim costume theme is “The Wild West”. It’s good guys and bad guys. Unfortunately, this world has far too many people from one group who are convinced they’re members of the other group.

The heinous and vile members of ISIS pride themselves on wearing their fearsome masks. Like many on-screen villains such as Jason in Friday the 13th or Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, they aim to make us cower and quiver. They relish in the thought. How twisted, then, that they do so in the name of God! How truly frightening that they believe their horror movies are directed by the Almighty!

Queen Esther achieved greatness not when she was given the crown but when she stripped her mask and revealed her true identity.

In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron and his sons continue to wear their costumes but their breastplates have the names of all the tribes of Israel inscribed on them. Lest they forget who they are serving and before whom they are conducting themselves, it is written across their chests. No, not God. Their community. Their society. They represent their brothers and sisters. Their actions are equally accountable to the highest moral standard in the universe and to each and every individual who sees them.

In this day and age, whether we’re watching the big screen, the small screen, or the smaller screens on our desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones, all the world is on it. We are indeed players, actors, that appear on the world’s screen. As we approach Purim, it may be worth asking:

What role will you choose to play? Will it be one that instills fear in others? Where you believe your actions to be accountable only to your Maker? Or will you choose to play your part like Queen Esther and like the Kohanim are commanded to – where your actions are accountable to your brothers and to your sisters? 

If all the world’s a screen, what costume will you choose to wear?

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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