If you ask any child to name their favorite Jewish festival, there is a pretty good chance that the answer will be Purim. And with good reason. It’s a nonstop party complete with the giving and receiving of the candy-filled packages, an abundance of fun carnivals and full permission to make as much noise as they want during synagogue services to blot out the name of Haman, the nefarious antagonist of the Purim story.
Still, the most exciting element of Purim for children (and often adults) is the opportunity to dress up in costume. For months ahead of time, Jewish children agonize over their Purim costumes, deciding which superhero or heroine, cartoon character or pop culture figure they are going to impersonate for a full 24 hours.
One of the main reasons we dress up on Purim is to hint at the hidden nature of God’s involvement in the Purim story, as God’s name doesn’t appear even once in the Book of Esther. While God was, obviously, pulling the strings from above, the commentators explain that God purposefully remained hidden throughout the story to allow Esther and Mordechai to become the heroes they were destined to become and save the Jews from destruction at the hands of Haman. As a reminder, we encourage young and old alike to disguise themselves, altering their identities and modifying their external forms in order to become something they are not.
While I like dressing up as much as the next big kid, Purim is about the exact opposite for me.
Working at ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities, Purim becomes a different kind of holiday. While our professional staff and dedicated volunteers go above and beyond to ensure that our residents enjoy every element of the holiday just like everyone else, we also encourage those in Israeli society and beyond to use the holiday as an opportunity for reflection. Instead of hiding away and altering our appearances, we focus on inclusion – bringing individuals with disabilities into the light and celebrating them for exactly who they are.
By lifting the mask of disability, looking beyond the external and seeing our residents for the beauty inside, we reveal each child’s unique abilities and can help them achieve their greatest potentials. Most children (and their parents) take milestones like communicating with others, walking, playing, breathing, and accepting the warmth of a hug for granted, but they are most definitely abilities worthy of great celebration. This kind of recalibration is incredibly important, especially on such a festive day.
While some might say that this message is a “little heavy” for Purim, the truth is that it’s actually what Purim is all about. In their great wisdom, Esther and Mordechai designed Purim as a moment for both rejoicing and reflection. In addition to retelling the miraculous Purim story and participating in grand merriment, we are required to give ‘Matanot L’Evyonim,’ gifts to the poor, as a reminder that it is never acceptable to be so absorbed in one’s own celebrations that we forget those who need our attention and assistance. We must always remember what’s truly important in life and be cognizant of the change that we can make in the world.
This Purim, I encourage you to run inclusive carnivals, host individuals with disabilities at your Purim feasts, and ensure that your synagogues are fully-accessible for everyone who wants to hear the Book of Esther. But most importantly, it’s crucial that we all take this opportunity to lift the mask of disability and apply this thinking to our everyday lives.
For the sake of society and our own humanity, it’s high time that we all become the heroes we were always destined to be.