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Purim Masks and Gas Masks

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Ephraim Shore

Just when my son thought the Purim fun was over, his eyes sparkled at the thought of a donning a different kind of mask and starting a new Purim again.

Ever try fitting your 2 1/2 year old with a gas mask?

(It’s hard enough explaining things to our 8 year old: "But Daddy, if the United States and England are having a war with Iraq, why do I have to put a gas mask on in Israel?")

Approaching this task with dread, expecting the inevitable tantrum and screams of confusion and fear as this plastic bubble would lower over his face, he would be surrounded by his former family members, now looming over him like daunting monsters with engorged black snouts and immense fly-eyes. My wife and I envisioned the moment with trepidation, when the Israeli army would give the order to "open up the boxes" and "be prepared."

However, our nightmare was not to be realized. A classic Yiddish proverb states: "While man plans, God laughs." And He has a wonderful sense of humor to boot.

Last Wednesday was Purim, when we celebrate the miraculous reversal of fortune that brought sudden victory to the Jewish people from the clutches of unimaginable calamity. From assured mass destruction, the tables were turned and in the space of 24 hours the Jews in Iraq[!] (then Persia) were suddenly routing every anti-Semite in the world’s most vast and powerful empire. The story unfolds through a succession of remarkable "coincidences," God’s hidden hand, guiding the salvation of the Jewish people to a spectacular climax.

Ever since that day, Jews the world over have been celebrating its message: that no matter how bleak, how dark and how hopeless a situation can appear, the Almighty has guaranteed our survival and redemption is always available, even in the blink of an eye.

Our mode of celebration is one of the most uncharacteristic in the annals of Jewish tradition: the sober, intellectual people of the Book turn to the bottle and are commanded to get drunk! And in our intoxicated state of joy, we clothe ourselves in colorful masks and costumes, and deliver gifts of money to the poor and treats to our neighbors. It’s sort of a wild cross between Halloween, a mass birthday and a colossal Super Bowl party -- but with a meaningful, uplifting message of hope.

The costumes are a vivid reminder that, like the Purim story, things are not as they seem on the surface, but a mysterious, hidden Divine plan is unfolding every moment, silently steering world history and ourselves.

Which brings us back to our 2 1/2 year old. After observing a 24-hour parade of Queen Esthers, a snowman, Osama bin Laden, Captain Hook and a vast assortment of kings and brides dancing through the streets before him, he understood what a mask was.

So as Purim drew to a close and masks and makeup were once again being stored away in boxes for next year, word of war’s outbreak flashed across the radio waves. And with it, the long-dreaded command to open up the boxes and finalize preparations of our sealed rooms.

However, just as in the Purim story, when the Almighty prepared "the cure before the sickness" (the former Queen was "liquidated" and Esther was chosen to take her place), so too had He arranged some nifty timing for millions of Jewish children today as well.

"Go, my people, come into your rooms and close your door behind you. Hide yourself for less than a moment until the fury is over."

In Israel, the street name for a gas mask is just "mask," as in "Have you got your mask yet?" I guess the term has been unconsciously sanitized to remove the unpleasant associations of the other word.

So now when we called our little son over to don his "mask" and to show him ours, his eyes sparkled at the thought of a new Purim starting again, just when he thought the fun was over. Instead of the anticipated trauma and fear, it became a fun adventure with another mask.

Now he even gets to proudly carry his mask to school in his own box, just like all his other little friends!

But the Almighty’s kindness does not extend only to the kids. This year’s remarkable juxtaposition of Purim with another modern day threat against the Jewish people from Persia has also had a soothing effect on us big people too. Judaism teaches that there is no such thing as coincidences, and the Purim story is the prototype of this axiom. Knowing that God arranged the timing of Gulf War 2 to remind us afresh of His guiding hand, of our inevitable redemption and of the Jewish’s people’s tenacious clinging to hope in the face of potential disaster, is helping us all handle this challenge in a whole new light.

The prophetic words of Isaiah (26:20) reassuringly called out to us as we put the final touches on our sealed rooms:

"Go, my people,
Come into your rooms and close your door behind you.
Hide yourself for less than a moment until the fury is over.
For see, the Almighty is coming out from His place
to punish the inhabitants of the land for their sins.
And the land shall reveal its blood and shall no longer cover over its murdered."

We hope and pray with Jews -- and humanity -- all over the world that this truly will be a new Purim, and that soon we will store away these masks as well, but this time, forever.


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