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Costume Madness

May 9, 2009 | by Shimon Apisdorf

On Purim, masks and costumes reveal more than they conceal.

The concept of wearing costumes and of concealing one's identity, is a recurrent theme throughout Purim. Examples of hidden identity and costumes in the Book of Esther include:

  1. When Esther and all the other candidates to become queen are brought to the palace, they are given their choice of clothing, jewelry and make-up to wear when presenting themselves to the king.
  2. After being chosen as queen, Esther conceals her identity as a Jew.
  3. Mordechai's identity as the one who saves the king's life remains hidden from the king – until just the right moment.
  4. King Achashverosh orders Haman to dress Mordechai in royal garments and parade him through the streets of Shushan.

Costumes and Clothing

Clothing makes a definite statement about who we are. But clothing is only one form of adornment. By belonging to particular clubs or groups or organizations, we also adorn ourselves. Our affiliations and associations make a statement about who we are. So does our furniture, our cars and the magazines we subscribe to. All are outer manifestations of our inner selves.

On Purim, we radically alter our most fundamental form of outer expression. We replace our regular clothing with a costume. In so doing, we hope not to exchange one costume for another, but to penetrate beneath the outer layers and discover a hidden essence. On Purim we dress as someone we could never be – a king, a queen or even as Haman the Jew-hater. Stripped of our usual attire, we no longer rely on the externalities of clothing to define us, but are free to explore a very personal inner world.

Masquerading has a paradoxical way of allowing us to see who we really are. By putting on a face that is not mine, I am able to look within and ask myself, "who then am I?"

Were we to take as much pain to be what we ought, as we do to disguise what we are, we might appear like ourselves without being at the trouble of any disguise at all. (Francois de la Rochefoucauld)

There is no fear as debilitating as the fear of "what will people think?" We become stifled and stilted when we just can't allow ourselves to be ourselves. All because we are afraid of what people will think.

In this vein, a costume can be liberating. All you need is a mask and some old clothing and no one will ever know who you are. Suddenly you are free to be yourself. You can go around telling corny jokes and making people laugh (if bringing smiles to people's faces is what you would really like to do). Or you can spend time visiting a nursing home (if warming lonely hearts is what you are really all about). Or you can be a king and treat your wife like a queen. Or be a horse and give all the neighborhood kids a ride. Or anything else you really want to be – but aren't – because of what other people will think.

And if you do it right on Purim, you just might find that you no longer care as much about what other people think.

Costumes and Laughter

We all have an alter ego, a part of us that would like to be something we are not. This alter ego is an inner adversary that can foil our best attempt to achieve what we want to achieve. At times it seems that we are forever locked in a struggle: us against ourselves.

My teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg of Jerusalem, says that on Purim you should dress up as your alter ego – and laugh.

Do you want to devote your weekends to bettering your community, but you feel like going fishing? Then dress up like a fisherman, and laugh at yourself.

Do you want to be there when your kids need you, but you feel like watching a good movie on television? So dress up like a couch potato, and laugh.

More than Bart Simpson or Louis CK, there is a deeper side to laughter. It cuts things down to size. Like when we get too serious about things or overly absorbed in our work, or ourselves. At these times, laughter is therapeutic. It cuts things down to size and helps us gain some much-needed perspective.

Haman built a gallows upon which to hang Mordechai, and suddenly Haman himself is hanged on those very gallows. The 13th day of Adar had been decreed as a day of destruction for the Jewish people; and in a flash it became a moment of salvation. Laughter comes when a predictable sequence of events suddenly produces the unexpected.

Purim is a time for tapping into the power of laughter. We realize that no matter how bleak things seem, we must never give up hope. And when we dress like our alter ego, like a couch potato, a beauty queen, or president of the United States – we laugh. And cut our nemesis down to size.

From "One Hour Purim Primer"

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