Who Am I?: Behind Our Masks

Who am I?

In the musical, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was a good and decent man who stole a loaf of bread to feed his family. Imprisoned for his crime, he is given a chance to become good and decent again only to have events he has long sought to escape come back to threaten him time and time again.To protect his hidden status, he need only allow Javert, the police detective, to take another into custody in his stead. But, what kind of person could allow such a thing to happen? And so he sings, Who am I? giving voice to that deepest of human needs, to know who we truly are.

Who am I?

We are called to ask the question and yet we wear masks, figurative and real. They hide who we are, our emotions and personalities. They sometimes reveal, but most often disguide, conceal, deceive, pretend, protect and allow the wearer to not be “who he is.”

But if masks are so clearly deceitful, why do we wear them on Purim? What is it that we hide and disguise on this holiday?

Pesach, Sukkot, Chanukah recall obvious miracles, miracles defined by their “unnaturalness.” But on Purim, even the miracle was “disguised” as natural, as if to suggest that God can “wear a mask” and remain concealed within natural, everyday events. The plot is familiar. King invites wife to ball, she is eliminated, anti-Semite, evil minister plots against the Jews, king remarries, she happens to be Jewish; she arranges to annul decree… These seeming natural events conceal the true Manhig Who is very involved. True, there are no plagues, no boils or darkness, but there is just as certainly the Hand of God at work.

God proclaims in the Torah anochi haster astir – I shall hide My face. Yes, there are times when God is hidden, when it is not apparent that He is involved in every minute of history.

On Purim all are commanded to give to those whose hand is outstretched. To minimize the shame of the poor, we wear a mask – so the pauper doesn’t need to “face me”. Indeed, the Purim story ends with Mordechai and Esther both dressed in royal clothing. Imagine, a story which began with Esther being the only candidate to not “beautify” herself with makeup and perfumes, and Mordechai wrapped in sackcloth praying for his people, now in such impressive costumes! Who but God could author such a “masquerade”?

But then, what of our masks? There are those whose lives are lived behind masks, hiding from others, hiding from themselves. There are those in the Jewish community who don’t seem to know who they are so they wear masks on their faces – masks of their choosing or masks imposed upon them. As the Yiddish song goes, A ganz yahr Purim – It’s Purim all Year! They fool most people most of the time. But they suffer!  ” I want out!” “I want to get an education. I want to be an enlightened member of society. I want to be somebody! I want to be me!”

No man can show one face to others and another to himself and not lose track of which is the real one. Too many people live their lives being a person they are “expected” to be; being “somebody else”.

On Purim, we are called to masquerade behind “the other one”. On Purim, we join hands with God and identify with the natural course of events. How much easier to be “with nature” than the awesomeness of parting seas! How much easier to have God work “behind the scenes”! But, unlike man, whether hidden or obvious He is the One God. The God of Pesach is the God of Purim. But we, we are lost in our hiddenness, lost in “…one of the greatest tragedies of life…” by losing our sense of self in favor of a version expected by everyone else.

But if masks are so negative, how can we be permitted to wear them, even for just one day?

On Purim our masks are made sacred by Yom Kippur, because Purim K purim – the Ba’alei Kabbalah teach that Yom Hakipurim is like Purim! Frivolity is the same as awesome spirituality. The two are integrated within one human being, a being made up of smiles and tears, memories and dreams, fears and hopes, body and soul. Neither can exist without the balance of the other. No Purim without Kipurim; no Kipurim without Purim.

Joy and solemnity. Do not the bride and groom fast and recite Al Cheit? Do they not sing and dance? Life is Kipurim and Purim, together in balance. The frivolity of Purim is ushered in by the Ta’anis Esther. Yom Kipur concludes with the building of the Sukkah.

We do not “hide” on Purim. We embrace the complexity of what it is to be human! As we should every day of the year. We must all be real every day. No one should fear what they love – Torah, halacha, education, our commitment to Israel, a relationship with society at large. These things need never be in conflict.

Many years ago, when I had more energy and less body mass, I was an all around Purim cheerleader. I danced, sang, clapped, lifted children up on my shoulders. I leapt atop tables, chairs, stages…anything to see happiness on the faces of beautiful Jewish kinderlach in Pittsburgh. Even in my youth, I was exhausted for days after the celebrations in the Hillel Academy which followed Megilah laining at our Poale Zedeck synagogue. Not just the dancing and singing, my Purim celebration included a Yerushalmi kapote and a Yerushalmi hat gifted to me by a Yerushalmi yid. Oye, this hat was my prize possession, as dear to me as gold and diamonds. It came out only for very special family simchas, like the weddings of my nieces Leora and Debbie, and for Purim. My Yerushalmi hat always came out for the Purim merriment. Year round, I wore my dignified suit, tie and hat. But on Purim…all that went by the wayside as my Yerushami hat made my Purim joy and happiness obvious!

Until one Purim night.

I do not recall the year. I was singing, dancing, jumping and, sweating.Just joy and happiness! One child on my shoulders after another. What happiness! And then, the little boy on my shoulders – he could not have been older than six – began to cry. What could make this little Israeli boy cry? His father, not very religious, had brought him to celebrate Purim in a warm and embracing Pittsburgh community, where all were as one, caring for one another, non judgmental. And all of a sudden, this cute little boy began to cry and shout.It took a minute for me to understand his sobbing plea. Ani rotzeh et ha’kova shel ha’Rav – I want the Rabbi’s hat!

Oye! What could I do? This little boy did nt want just any hat! He had not cried for just any grogger! He wanted my Yerushalmi hat! Whar could I do? How would I be my “Purim self” without my hat? Without my Purim hat, how could I be Rabbi Safran on Purim?

The little boy could not understand my dilemma. He only knew what he knew, which was that he wanted the kova shel ha’Rav. What could I do? I whipped the hat off my head and put it on his! His tears immediately vanished, replaced by a broad smile.

In truth, I have missed my hat. This precious gift from Reb Avramal’e Freund z’l, this gift that I delighted in so dearly. But I gave it away; to a child I did not even know!

Do you think it is silly that I think of that hat often? That I wonder about giving it away to a stranger? it has taken a long time to realize that as much as I loved that hat, it was not the real me.

It was a costume. A mask. Which allowed me, its wearer to act out of character, to have a new personna.

A Yerushalmi hat. Imagine, a hat conferring such a thing! But we see it to be so every day. A shtreimel in communities of yesteryear spoke of impeccable spiritual purity, devotion, and holiness. Those who lived every day in the garb of yesteryear were renowned for everything sacred and pure.

After all, how many yidden in the shtetl of old wore a shtreimel? So very few. Yet where I live today, who does not wear a shtreimel? Only strangers to the community.

Is it a costume or a true reflection of your inner being? Be real! Don’t wear what is not the real you! If your hat speaks to a certain hashkafa be sure that every facet of your life is true to that hat. If your hat bespeaks perishut as the Yerushalmi hat once did, then be sure that you live with perishut in all facets of your life.

And if you wear a shtreimel…

Let your “costume” reflect your true self, not hide it!

Which gets me to wondering… who is wearing my Yerushalmi hat this Purim? Is he singing and dancing with all his heart and soul, embracing the joy of the holiday?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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