Rabbi O on Purim: The Masks of Purim and COVID

 Wearing a mask was once child’s play but one year ago, the role of masks changed dramatically. We now understand that wearing a mask can be a matter of life and death – for us and those around us. In the book Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters in Life, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz devoted an entire chapter to masks and says that we wear them as we assume different roles and functions throughout our lives. He makes the case that such masks are essential from psychological and sociological perspectives – to function in society, to protect our own sanity and to shield others from the harsh effects of uncensored criticism. Physical masks can project a message of who you are but we can also mask our identities and the roles we play as we act our way through the different scenes of our life. Physical masks feature prominently on Purim and Rav Steinsaltz suggests that this is so because many of the Megillah’s characters mask their identities, assuming roles that hide their true selves. Esther hides her identity when becoming Queen and continues to do so for the first nine years she lives in the palace. She plays the role of a passive person with a mysterious past. Mordechai also deliberately wears a mask by standing at the palace gates while concealing his relationship to the Queen. Even G-d, so to speak, wears the mask of concealment; His name is not mentioned once in the entire Megillah. When the pandemic ends, we will face the new challenge of remembering how to take our masks off. The story of the Megillah is not so much about the wearing of masks, but removing them at the right time. Esther never protested Mordechai’s instruction to hide her identity (“her nation and her upbringing”). To the contrary, she becomes so comfortable in her mask – the role of the “Queen with No Identity,” a role she has played for close to a decade, that she has trouble understanding why it must be cast aside for the sake of her people. Her protest is sensible; removing any sort of a mask carries risk. However, Mordechai convinces her that, when all is said and done, her masquerade as Persian Queen will not protect her, even inside the palace.Perhaps then, we wear masks on Purim not so much to put them on, but to take them off, to remind ourselves that we are wearing masks. It is a mitzvah on Purim to attend a public reading of the Megillah so that we can pull the veil off of the Purim story to reveal a Divine hand moving Jewish history. This message has practical applications for us. We can wear masks for so long that we forget our real selves beneath them. In the professional world, some people assume identities (the boss, Dr., legal counsel, and find it challenging to leave those masks behind when they return to family and friends or a random encounter with a cashier at the supermarket. Forgetting to remove the masks of our profession is akin to something that unwittingly has happened to most of us; we forget to remove a mask long after arriving at a safe place. Besides the surgeon’s masks we have donned for COVID, what else have we inserted between ourselves and our world? Has it been placed there out of necessity or convenience? How have we changed during COVID? What do we wish to keep, and what are we looking forward to discarding?