Masks and magic

The importance of costuming oneself for Purim.

A Veneziana mask from Verona, Italy (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Veneziana mask from Verona, Italy
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The brilliant Oscar Wilde noted, “A mask tells you more than a face.”
Indeed, the mask remains the oldest form of human expression, perhaps even the first sign of humanity’s wily humor and a door to who we really are.
A mask covers the face, the part of the body that so prominently portrays our personality. Hiding the face partially or completely, a mask can enable us to change our identity, age, gender, social status and everyday appearance.
The oldest limestone masks included garish smiles and haunting eyes. Unearthed in the Judean Hills, their origin dates back 9,000 years, according to the Israel Museum.
Our Stone Age ancestors likely used them in rituals at the dawn of civilization.
It is impossible to know the exact nature of these rites, but it was likely something ghoulish.
Since the earliest days, people have enjoyed masks and costumes, as depicted in cave drawings that the French Office of Cultural Affairs dated back 25,000 years.
The biblical account of masks precedes the Purim story. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a masked face (Exodus 34) so that he would appear less scary. We are to understand that the spiritual heights he reached in his conversation with God, evident in this countenance, were too profound for ordinary people to handle.
The mystery of the mask reappears as the essential comedy of errors in the Book of Esther; the story of Purim. The Purim story is a masquerade connected with apparent miracles. The lead characters change their destiny by changing their appearance and clothing.
Vashti becomes exceedingly unattractive and hides from the leading ruler, Ahasuerus, who is himself hiding behind the decisions of his scheming advisors. Haman seeks power because of his ego and pride, but is hanged in public when his cruel and foolish deeds are “unmasked.” Uncle Mordecai starts the story wearing little more than a sack, but is soon presented with royal garments and brought into the palace.
And finally, there is our beloved heroine, Esther, who meekly hides her true identity until she dresses in the garments of royalty, drops her submissiveness and transforms into a regal heroine.
The Purim holiday is ultimately about authenticity and honesty, reminding us to face the complexity of being human with all its conflicts.
This is why we welcome the magic of costuming along with the exchange of mishloah manot. As we hide behind the events of the season, we are so obviously not ourselves that we might actually come close to that silent space where we can become grounded in the truth of who we truly are underneath the costume.
Little surprise that the holiday has always enjoyed these customs. There are reports of Jews in 15th-century Germany who dressed up for the holiday, and the Italian carnival was a positive influence on the custom in Europe.
Holiness seems in on the fun. Megilat Esther includes no mention of God, and we are encouraged to consider the different faces of the people in the story, as representing aspects of God that appear in our lives.
Deuteronomy 31:18 includes the prophecy “I will hide my face on that day.” God must be wearing the mask of Esther as well, and enabling her to bring a meaningful consciousness to the terrifying situation.
Purim disguises remain a literal and existential tool reflecting the figurative and physical masks we use to hide our emotions and personalities on a daily basis.
This is how we pretend. We need to fool and protect ourselves during our daily living.
Global Jewish communities are still facing daily battles on their identity, their assimilation, their religiosity. Even in Israel, we show different faces to the people in our lives and are inevitably caught up with hopeful expectations of who we can really be and what we should strive for.
The Purim holiday is a meaningful opportunity to change our outlook by changing our appearance. A 2015 study from the California State University at Northridge authored by Abraham Rutchik, professor of psychology, found that we change the way we think depending on what we wear. Dressing up as an astronaut will leave the Purim celebrator in an attentive uplifted mood, far more powerful than the experience of dressing as a rat.
“Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” explained Rutchick.
Thus it is that to see our world more clearly, we do well to follow the example of our forefathers and leap into the Purim spirit with a little self-examination and a large dose of high spirits.
Just remember to choose the costume that will mask your worst tendencies because it may help keep you safe through another year.