Samuel I 15:2-15:34
Masquerading in costumes is an important part of Purim. Not only does it add to the wacky fun and merrymaking of the holiday, but it symbolizes many of the themes of the Purim story. Costumes hide our identity, and Purim is about the overturning of roles and blurring of distinctions. The way the story unfolds, for example, instead of the wicked Haman, it is Mordechai who gets to wear the royal garb and be paraded on the king’s horse through the city.
As the Megillah says, “nahafoch hu” — everything was turned to the opposite. “On the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to have power over them, the opposite happened, and the Jews got power over those who hated them” (Esther 9:1).
We celebrate this victory by drinking, according to the Talmud, until we don’t know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” Dressing up as someone very different from ourselves helps us experience this topsy-turvy oppositeness.
Another reason for hiding our identity in Purim costumes is that God is hidden in the Purim story. God’s name is not explicitly mentioned in the Megillah of Esther, and the name Esther itself means “hidden” and is an allusion to God’s words in the Torah, “I will surely hide (haster astir) My face” (Deuteronomy 31:18).
The events of the Purim story seem to be decided by random chance, by luck, and by coincidence, but our tradition considers these events to be miraculous evidence of the hidden hand of God.
Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, which we read just prior to Purim, also deals with costumes. For several weeks, our Torah portions deal with instructions for the building of the mishkan, or tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that housed the Presence of God in the wilderness.
Within that context, Tetzavah contains instructions for the priestly garments, which were part of the holy vessels of the mishkan. We read the commands to make sacred vestments for Aaron and his sons: the breastplate, the robe, the tunic, sash, and headdress (made of gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, precious stones, golden bells and pomegranates).
The Torah says that the purpose of these special vestments is lechavod u’letifaret, for honor and beauty (Exodus 28:2). But when we read this parshah the day before Purim, it seems like the mishkan, with its cloths, planks, curtains, furniture and the clothing that goes with it, might just be God’s Purim costume!
The Torah tells us that the mishkan was God’s dwelling place, so all of these vessels and accessories are God’s garments, so to speak.
Why does God need such an elaborate costume? Well, we all know that when you see someone in a costume, you look at them more closely. You notice them, and you look with curiosity: Who is that in there behind the disguise? The more hidden, the more we look. In this way, concealing actually reveals. Through the act of cloaking God, the vessels and garments of the mishkan reveal the Divine Presence.
God might dress up for Purim in the garments of the mishkan, but God always wears a costume: the world.
As our mystics have taught, the world is a garment that conceals the Presence of the Divine. In fact, the Hebrew word for “world,” olam, has the same root as the word “hidden,” ne’elam — because the world is God’s hiding place.
A story is told about the Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezeritch. Once, his son came running to him, crying. The Maggid asked his son, “What’s the matter?” The son answered, “I was playing hide and seek with my friends. I found a good hiding place, but no one came to look for me!” In the tears of the child, the Maggid heard the Holy One crying, “I, God, have hidden Myself, but no one comes to look for Me.”
The Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim, is called in Hebrew “Megillat Esther,” which means “revealing the concealed.” The oppositeness of Purim is that through costumes and hiddenness, concealing leads to revealing.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.