“Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life. I sometimes muse over this sketch of a story about a man afflicted by one of those personal tragedies born of extreme shyness who one day, while wearing a mask I don’t know where, told another mask all the most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things that could be told about his tragic and serene life. And since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn’t take careful note of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one to whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant.”
[- Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher]
The holiday of Purim, which we will festively welcome on Saturday evening, March 16th, is referred to, in rabbinic writings, as “hester Panim”–the holiday of “the hiding of God’s face”. Since it is firmly asserted in Jewish tradition that it is impossible to look upon the face of the Eternal, perhaps the God of our tradition is eternally garbed for Purim.
Just as our deepest truths are more easily revealed when we do not fear discovery, Purim itself shields us from its sober truths with its festive garb of merriment. Behind the laughter, the deflating of powerful egos, the drinking and merry-making---all of which are part of the traditional celebration of Purim---lies darker stuff...the reality of anti-Semitism and the harsh truth that it can erupt anywhere, and at any time, with dire consequences.
The Jews of Europe know this far better than we do here in the comfort of America. France, Great Britain, Norway, Hungary all have seen ugly eruptions of anti-Semitism in the past few years as right-wing nationalists of various stripes turn to that tried-and-true trope of blaming Jews for their nations’ woes. There is no shortage of modern-day Hamans to fuel the fires of Jew-hatred. [See the fascinating essay by Anne Applebaum in the Nov. 13 issue of The New Yorker, “ANTI-SEMITE AND JEW: The double life of a Hungarian politician.”]
It is easy, and tempting, to think of Purim simply as a celebration intended to delight our children or the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, designed to give us a mid-winter lift. But we give the holiday short shrift when we do so for it is we adults who runs this world and adult Jews should always be alert to the “hidden” message of Purim. Even as we rejoice with our costumed children over Haman’s ignominious defeat, we pay close attention to the megillah’s backdrop that tells us of a thoroughly assimilated Jewish community that, virtually overnight, finds itself forced to fight for its very life. I often wonder what it would have been like to celebrate Purim in Barcelona in the late 1480's or in Berlin in the 1930's. Would I have connected the dots that led from Haman to Ferdinand & Isabella and on to Hitler?
As Purim approaches, choose your costume, find a mask, come prepared for laughter and the joys of community. But come, also, prepared to take away Purim’s eternal caveat.