Purim: Life is a Masquerade

The holiday of Purim is unusual, even strange, in many ways.

It is the only time of the year when we are not only allowed, but expected, to get drunk.

We look at the Megilla and see people doing things that don’t make sense for them, as if they were drunk or, perhaps, insane: Vashti refuses to appear at the King’s party, and is killed for it. The two guards conspiring to kill the King allow their plans to become known, and are executed. Haman’s grandiose plans for being honored are turned around, as he is forced to honor Mordechai, and then the gallows he built for Mordechai are used, instead, for him.

It is also the only holiday when we have the custom to masquerade – men dressing as women, women dressing as men – which, at any other time, would not even be permitted. Again, this seems to come straight from the Megilla, where so many people are acting and, in some way, wearing a mask: Achashverosh is the King, but he doesn’t act like a king; every time he has to make a decision, he has to ask others to help him. The guards are supposed to be protecting Achashverosh, but they are actually plotting to kill him. Haman is promoted to a position of power, but he is still just a poor little anti-Semitic wretch. And Esther hides her Jewish identity for years.

Even God seems to be wearing a mask, hiding His face, so to speak and allowing the Jews to believe that He is so angry at us that He will allow us to be destroyed. In fact, He is so hidden that He is not mentioned in the Megilla at all. The Talmud (Masskehet Ḥullin 139b) even identifies the source for Esther as the verse “V’anochi haster astir panai – I will hide My face“( 31:18).

God’s Name is absent in the Megilla that records the story of Purim, and God’s power seems to be absent, too. We refer to Purim as miraculous, but where are the miracles? On the surface, everything seems to be explained. Everything is rational, with a clear cause-and-effect chain. So where is the miracle?

To understand it, we have to know that there are, generally, two kinds of miracles.

In the miracles of the first period of Jewish history, the ones that we celebrate on our major holidays – Pesaḥ, Shavuot, Sukkot – Divine providence was obvious. When the Red Sea was divided, the face of God was apparent. In the events on Mount Sinai, the face of God was apparent. These and other supernatural miracles – miracles of the first order – are clear, and they are visibly directional and intentional.

But in the post-Biblical world, clarity and direction are often lost. Purim happens during this very different time in our history. When we say that God is “hiding His face” in the Purim story, it is not just a play on words; it is a basic notion. Part of the miracle of Purim is that everyone is masquerading, acting drunk, and thinking that they are doing things for their own benefit, but it is because God is acting “off stage” that it comes together for a good ending.

This may be why the Jerusalem Talmud says that the other holidays – the Biblical ones marked by obvious miracles – will eventually be forgotten, but Hanukkah and Purim will continue forever. The miracles of Hanukkah and Purim are part of the second phase of our life as a people. Almost by definition, they must be obscure, hidden, disguised.

When we celebrate Purim, we are celebrating a time in which nothing is revealed. Some of it is masked, and some is crazy. God is speaking to us in a different language, and the only way of understanding this language is by letting go of ourselves and the conceit that we control our lives through rational, well-thought-out plans. He is telling us that there are things that we will never understand, certainly not when we are completely sane and coherent. There are things that we may begin to understand only when we lose our self-consciousness.

Purim is the miraculous story that takes place in the apparent absence of God or miracles. Purim is the holiday that we celebrate by behaving as though we don’t know what we are doing and aren’t even sure about who we are. On Purim we abandon the illusion that we control, or even understand, our world. We don’t know quite where we are going or where it will end.

Perhaps, we will only understand this Megilla – or the “megilla” of our own lives – after it is written. For now, we continue to live in a time when our very existence is threatened, and when miracles masquerade as everyday occurrences. Because we are sober, sane, and rational, we think the events that we witness are the result of human endeavor. If we are to see and appreciate God’s role, we may have to let go a little as we celebrate the miracle of Purim.