March 6, 2009 Behind the Mask of Purim Rabbi Dr. Moshe P. Weisblum Special to the Jewish Times
In a few days, Jewish people around the world will parade through streets and synagogues dressed as the brave Queen Esther and the wise Mordechai. Some will even choose contemporary characters, revealing a wilder, more creative side of themselves. Dressing in costume is exciting. When we change our outward appearance, we feel different; through the eyes of a mask, we experience a new way of looking at the world.Everyone loves Purim because it is a day filled with lighthearted fun. But beneath the masquerades, there is a serious message: the remembrance of a time of great danger, and of a wicked man who tried to utterly destroy the Jewish people.
We can see these timely themes woven throughout this week’s double Torah portion: parshat Tetzaveh and parshat Zachor. In parshat Tetzaveh, G-d commands Moshe to make holy garments for his brother Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). We read a detailed description of the clothing worn by Aharon and by the other Kohanim — clothes that clearly set them apart from ordinary people and marked the sanctity of their position.
The Kohen’s elegant robe and bejeweled breastplate were not only beautiful, but also inspirational, and fitting for someone whose role was to elevate the Jewish nation in the eyes of G-d. According to Rambam (Maimonides), the priestly garments were meant to elicit respect for the worthiness of the Kohen as a holy vehicle. His majestic attire would motivate each Jew to connect with the Almighty.
In the second part of the double Torah reading, parshat Zachor (meaning “remember”), we read of the cowardly attack by the evil nation of Amalek (from whom Haman descended) on weary Jewish escapees from Egypt. We are commanded to remember how they sought to destroy us.
How are these two Torah portions connected? What message do they contain when they are read together, as they are this year?
We’ve all heard the expression, “Clothes make the man”óand to a large extent, it’s true. The clothing of the Kohanim is an excellent example. Of course, focusing on clothing for superficial reasons can become excessive, but when used for the purpose of holiness, and worn with dignity and modesty, clothes are symbolically elevating. Self-respecting clothing raises our image in the eyes of others. They encourage us and those around us to live according to higher ideals. What we wear on the outside affects how we speak, behave, and think.
Styles come and go, while others are classic. Clothes can also convey a sense of history and give us a sociological context. Some of our grandparents and great-grandparents arrived in America in tattered clothes; generations later, our closets burst with designer clothing. Interestingly, I saw recently an exhibit tracing the Jewish history of fashion trends in America. It details how Jews, through their contributions to the garment industry, helped shaped and influence the American fashion ideal.
But attractive exhibits may gloss over the less-than-glamorous realities of the past. Carefully curated displays of sepia-toned photographs show us an old-fashioned world through rose-colored glasses. A trip down memory lane makes us sentimental. But if the past also brings us painful memories — as history certainly does — why look back? Indeed, why bother remembering Amalek, an evil force bent on Jewish annihilation? Why not focus on the positive and move forward? However, G-d commands us “not to forget Amalek” for our own good. Parshat Zachor reminds us that Amalek still exists in the world even today, and we should stay alert. Jewish survival depends on remembering our past. Surely in this way we can preserve our future.
This Purim, as Megillat Esther is read, we will drown out the name of the evil Haman. Thereby, we remember Amalek in order not to again fall prey to others’ sinister plans. And when we hear the story of Esther’s transformation from a simple Jewish girl to a beautiful queen who dressed in royal gowns to win the favor of the king, we are reminded that each of us is like royalty, since we are all children of G-d. Each of us is like a Kohen; we are called “a nation of priests.” When we see ourselves this way, we elevate our people in the eyes of the world, so that we can look forward to a time of true freedom and peace for all humankind. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim.
Rabbi Weisblum is spiritual leader of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Annapolis and the author of the popular “Table Talk: Biblical Questions and Answers’ and “Ruth Talk: Questions and Answers on the Book of Ruth.’