Parashat Vayigash 5783 | Delivered on December 30, 2022
While Purim ranks among the more minor holidays, its personal and spiritual impact is significant. Having wrapped up Chanukah last week, Purim is next on the Jewish calendar. The Confirmation Class starts their work on the spiel in the next few weeks, and parent volunteers begin to grab all the classic carnival games from the storage space, all in order that we as a community can celebrate how Esther and Mordechai overcame the threats of the evil Haman (Boo!).
Yes, Purim is a time to let loose and have some fun. It is a time to lean into that part of ourselves we instinctually think we otherwise should hide away. While costumes have never been my personal favorite, the clothes we wear are meaningful. We wear a costume to recognize that there is always some part of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with, that there are aspects of our personalities, situation, or condition that we would rather hide away from everyone else. On Purim, we do not have to be ourselves. We can be someone else for a bit.
Esther’s story gives us good reason to wear costumes. Wearing our Jewishness outwardly can be dangerous. After Ahasuerus chooses Esther to be his new wife, she is set up in the palace. A fresh wardrobe, high end makeup, and other niceties arrive--all the things she needs to make her fully a Persian queen. All the while, we find out that Esther has chosen to not reveal that she is Jewish. Mordechai told her not to. Keeping her true identity hidden means that the presentation she makes to her new husband-king and the royal court is itself a costume.
And the intent of that cover-up is to create a sense of safety, to hide away some part of ourselves. This is why we wear costumes on Purim. Because from time to time, at least once a year, it can be nice to put on someone else’s clothes, and to let go of the burdens that come with our own authentic selves. On Purim, you do not have to be a kid, and you do not have to be an adult. We can play with gender. We can pretend to be pirates. Our Purim play lightens the intensity of the identities we carry daily.
Other faith traditions have similar holidays, where costumes and frivolity rule the day. The Ancient Romans had Liberalia (the name of the holiday says it all). Mardi Gras and Carnival come out of the Christian tradition. Ask an American child what their favorite holiday is, and Halloween will certainly rank high. It’s practically a High Holy Day in some households. Various traditions have recognized the spiritual importance of including a masquerade on their liturgical calendars.
And the Jewish community is no different. Purim’s meaning is deeply spiritual. The masks we wear on Purim allow us to pretend to be someone else, because six months prior, at Yom Kippur, we had to be ourselves. On Purim we get to put our masks on, because when we were fasting on Yom Kippur, we were obligated to take them off. As Rabbi Rachel Adler notes, Purim and Yom Kippur are inversions of one another. The timing is mirrored: Purim comes precisely half a year after Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we feast and then fast, and on Purim we fast and then feast. Yom Kippur is austere; Purim is unrestrained. Esther is the reluctant heroine who operates in a foreign land among foreign people, which is reminiscent of the reluctant prophet Jonah, who’s is told to go to that foreign land of Nineveh and declare prophecy to those foreign people, the Ninevites. Even the names of the holidays show their connections. Purim is Purim, and Yom Kippur gets to be like Purim. We say that Yom Kippur is Yom K’Purim, a day that is like Purim. Purim is that holiday in which we, like Esther, put on our masks. But on Yom Kippur, for the day to really work, we have to take off our masks, do we not?
To wear the costume or not, is the spiritual and emotional question. Which is exactly what our ancestor Joseph has been trying to figure out in the story we’ve been reading for the last couple of weeks in our regular cycle of Torah reading. Joseph, the youngest and most favored among Jacob’s sons, has been on quite a journey. He went in search of his brothers, only to find them and then to be cast into a pit. The brothers led their father to believe Joseph was dead, but in the meantime he had actually been taken into slavery. Joseph ends up in Egypt, begins to divine meaning from dreams, and foretells of a famine that strikes the entire region. In preparation, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the stockpiling of grain. Joseph comes of age, and is more and more Egyptian every day, not dissimilar an upbringing from what will be Moses’ experience a generation and a half later. Joseph marries in Egypt. Joseph has assimilated into the Egyptian court.
The famine strikes the Egyptians just as Joseph predicted. And, it impacts the Land of Canaan, too. One day, his brothers show up in search of food. He recognizes them, though they do not realize they are facing their youngest sibling. And here enters one of the most masterful stories in our tradition. Joseph is conflicted: Is he to reveal himself to his brothers, reconcile and be reunited with his father? Or, should he use his position to inflict harm on those who so fundamentally wronged him all those years ago? This tension plays out over several chapters in Genesis. The brothers going back and forth with Joseph trying to procure grain and convince him they come peacefully, only wanting to provide food for their people.
Most of the telling of the story is dialogue between the brothers and Joseph. Yet, as they negotiate the ins and outs of their ask, the narrator interjects an important detail for the readers to understand: “The brothers did not know that Joseph understood them, because of the interpreter between them.”
Joseph was wearing the costume of an Egyptian, leading an Egyptian life. And, in their interaction, as Rashi goes on to explain, Joseph further masked his identity through language. The brothers and he were speaking different languages. And in all their debates, he chose to speak one way while listening to his mother tongue. This was another mask that Joseph was choosing to wear.
We might be inclined to read this as a moment in which Joseph continues to deceive his brothers. But the Maharal of Prague, the 16th Century Talmudic master, has another take. We should not be surprised that Joseph spoke to his brothers in the Egyptian language, he says. Afterall, he had not spoken Hebrew since he was a child. The text tells us that he understood them, but overtaken by the emotion of the moment, who could expect that he would be confident in using a language that he had not heard in many years?
The story of Joseph, like Esther, is all about the costume one wears. In Esther’s story, she masks her identity to keep her and her people safe. In Joseph’s story, he too wears a mask because it is safer and easier to do so. Both choose to reveal themselves when it benefits them. And all of this goes to ask the question: when is it best to be ourselves, and when benefit by being someone else? Esther only reveals herself to overcome Haman’s threat. Joseph says to his brothers, “I am Joseph,” only when he can no longer bear being concealed in plain sight. For each of them, whether because they were prompted by an internal or external force, there comes a moment where they can no longer play the game. They need to be their own authentic selves.
The longer we wear a costume, the more we realize how problematic they can become. We might wear them daily, but they never fit quite right. The main problem with regularly covering up our true selves is that it becomes easier to confuse that version of who we are with the real version, does it not? We tell a fib, and the more we repeat it, the more it becomes something we believe, too. Who among us has not exaggerated, where it becomes easier to share that exaggeration with each retelling? We lie about our upbringings. We add or subtract a few years from our age. We claim more experience than we may have to get the next job. We tell ourselves that there’s more money in the bank than we know there really is. We dress ourselves up in costumes all the time, and convince ourselves and others that that is our real self.
Remember the song, “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads? My favorite line is the one that goes, “And you may find yourself, in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’” Taken one way, we strive for achievements and are rewarded. That’s a good thing, and when we find ourselves in those places, we should offer a blessing of gratitude. But sometimes, we find ourselves in that beautiful house having done little to get there, or worse, having lied our way into it. And this is the lesson of the masks we wear: We find ourselves in moments where we stop and reflect--whether that be on Yom Kippur or any other day of the year--and we may wonder how we got here? Did we do so honestly or no? Did we conceal an authentic part of ourselves to our own detriment or someone elses? Have we been true to ourselves, or playing pretend?
We all wear costumes. It’s part of the game we play. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph teaches us that there are times in families where we have to be real with one another, where the masks must come off. And Esther reminds us that there are moments where our costumes conceal what is really going on for ourselves and for others. Maybe we do it for safety, but then we also need to be brave when the mask must come off.
On Purim we put on our costumes, and on Yom Kippur we take them off. It’s part of who we are. My greatest hope for each of us, is that when we arrive at that choice point, where we find ourselves considering who we are, who we have been, and who we are yet to be, that we will at least take those masks off for ourselves, and then have the courage to show our true selves to those whom we love.
1 Esther 2:10-11.
2 Adler, Rachel. “A Carnival at the Gates : Jonah and Laughter on Yom Kippur.” In Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
3 Genesis 42:23.
4 Rashi on Genesis 42:23.
5 Maharal on Genesis 42:23.