Behind the mask


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson looks at the story behind the holiday of Purim to understand the masks we wear and the courage it takes to reveal our true selves and live authentically.

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One of the best parts of childhood, in my view, are children’s books. I imagine you have your favorites.

I can vividly remember books I read in elementary school — Judy Blume’s Superfudge and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing; sports books by Matt Christopher; I could go on.

Carnival mask (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

I can testify from personal experience that the books of Beverly Cleary, who died just a few years ago at age 104, are timeless classics. Even in the digital age, her insights into childhood are so spot on and well-told — if AI learns how to be a child, it will learn it from Beverly Cleary’s books.

There’s a moment in one of her Ramona books, Ramona the Pest, that I’ve loved for many years. It’s Halloween and Ramona, a second-grader, is all excited to be dressed up as a witch.

But she gets to school and realizes she’s not the only witch — in fact, it’s a pretty common costume. So Ramona begins to wonder, does Miss Binney, her teacher, even know that she’s Ramona under her disguise?

So, as Cleary puts it, “She ran up to to her and shouted in her muffled voice, ‘Hello, Miss Binney! I’m going to get you!”

Miss Biinney offers a generic, “Ooh, what a scary witch!” and it begins to dawn on Ramona that her teacher doesn’t actually know that it’s her–she’s just another witch on the playground.

And here’s the money line from Beverly Cleary, a line that has stuck with me for decades:

“Miss Binney was not the one who was frightened. Ramona was. Miss Binney did not know who this witch was. Nobody knew who Ramona was, and if nobody knew who she was, she wasn’t anybody.”

If nobody knew who she was, she wasn’t anybody. If that’s not a timeless insight into childhood — or adulthood, for that matter — I don’t know what is. Woof.

Aristotle taught us that humans are social creatures. We are hardwired to need recognition — to be seen and heard and valued.

We put on masks and costumes in order to function in the world — whether those are literal costumes like Ramona was wearing, or the more figurative masks that allow us to present ourselves to the world —masks and costumes of identities that aren’t necessarily ours.

If you’ve ever had a moment when you just felt really out of place, like you weren’t being honest with yourself and others about who you were — you can pick up on the pain that Ramona was feeling when her teacher didn’t recognize her.

It’s one of our deepest needs as humans: to know who we are and to be recognized and appreciated for it — by others, by the world, and by our own selves.

This coming week, Jews all over the world will celebrate the holiday of Purim. There’s a lot about Purim that looks like Halloween, actually: People dress in costumes. Kids eat lots of candy.

But at the heart of the Purim holiday is a story about self-knowledge and recognition: the story of Queen Esther, who conceals her Jewish identity and then reveals it in order to save her people from Haman, who–and, like, literally this is in the text of the Biblical book of Esther — wanted to kill all the Jews.

A pivotal moment in the story comes in an exchange between Esther and Mordechai, her uncle and guardian. At the beginning of the story, Mordechai had told Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity to the king. The text doesn’t tell us why. But Esther listens and doesn’t say anything. Mum’s the word.

But now, facing impending doom, Mordechai writes Esther a letter, telling her that the time has come to go to the king, tell him, “Honey, guess what: I’m Jewish,” and plead for him to stop Haman.

But Esther is worried, because evidently, going to the king without an appointment meant execution, even for the queen. And then Mordechai utters his own money line, one that, to me, rivals even the great Beverly Cleary: “Who knows if it wasn’t for this very moment that you ascended to the throne?”

I want to linger on this exchange for a minute, because the profound adult truth of it can sometimes get obscured in the children’s story version.

What is Mordechai really saying to Esther? I think he’s saying, “It’s time to get clear with yourself about who you really are — and to share that truth with the world. And that’s worth risking your life for–because if you’re not being honest about who you are, then what really is the point of it all?” 

It’s actually a message right there in the title of the book, in Esther’s own name: In Hebrew, Esther is related to the word hester, concealment, hiding.

For a long time, Esther has worn a mask, as it were — she has hidden who she is, both from the king, the whole royal court, and, in some sense, herself.

That mask has enabled her to arrive at a place of power and influence. And we can imagine she has a lot of her identity invested in continuing to wear it — and a lot of anxiety about what it would mean to take it off.

If we read the story right, we should probably wait several beats at this point and play dramatic music as Esther looks meaningfully in the mirror, debating her next step.

After that long pause, she ultimately decides that being true to herself, and saving the lives of her people in the process, is her calling — and she replies to Mordechai, “Okay, I’ll go to the king. And if I perish, I perish. It’s time to be honest with the world — and with myself.” Long live the queen.

I think this is a key thing to remember about Jewish mindfulness practice: While one of the reasons we practice is to help calm ourselves, lower our anxiety, and reconnect in our busy world, at the end of the day that’s necessary but not sufficient.

The point of our practice is ultimately to live more honestly and courageously, and to bring about a world in which everyone can do that too.

We do meditation and contemplative prayer and mindful living and all these things not because we want to escape the world by feeling good, but because we want to get clear on what’s really true — who we really are, what the world really asks of us, what and how we are truly called to be in this life of ours. 

So my invitation to you this Purim is to find some time to get quiet and do some reflecting. What mask are you wearing, and is it serving you? If it’s not, what’s keeping you from taking it off? Who might be a Mordechai in your life: someone who can help you get clear on that mask, someone who can stand with you as you remove it? Who might you be a Mordechai for?

Purim comes thirty days before Passover, so it sort of marks the beginning of a journey to liberation. This getting clear, this taking off our masks and being honest–it’s an essential part of that journey, one that we’ll be taking together in the weeks to come.

Chag sameach — blessings for a revealing and liberating Purim.

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