Posted on February 25, 2021

By Hazzan Ben Tisser

Masks. As a child, I associated this word with Halloween, of course with Purim, and occasionally with my dentist. As an adult, masks remained a symbol of parties, good times, and Purim (and yes, the occasional dental appointment), and we learn to think about masks as a metaphor as well. Most recently, masks have become part of our daily lives – our suits of armor, so to speak – protecting our very lives.

For many of us, masks are utilitarian. We want to be sure they fit properly, that they offer sufficient filtration against microparticles, and that they ultimately do their job. Others of us are equally concerned with the aesthetic of our facewear, and in response fashion designers around the world have created lines of very attractive masks. Some of us cannot stand the nuisance of having our faces covered, while others of us take great comfort in the discomfort. And while literal masks are part of our wardrobe, figurative masks are still very much present.

Metaphorically speaking, we have all learned to mask ourselves at times. To wear a “poker face”, or to hide deep emotion; to hide frustration with friends or family members in favor of showing patience and understanding…and to hide those parts of ourselves we might wish others not know about. Sometimes, we hide behind a mask (or an emotional wall) when we are hurt by someone we love.

In Deuteronomy (31:16-18), God speaks to Moshe, calling him up to the peaks of Mt. Nevo, where he will ultimately die. God tells Moshe that Israel will forsake the Covenant, and that God will therefore hide God’s face from the people, but that ultimately they will return and all will be good. The Hebrew used for “hide” is a doubly-strong form (“haster astir,“ which both look and sound like Esther — I’ll get there in a moment). God predicts that God will be so hurt by Israel’s breach of the commandment that it seems God will hide behind a dozen N95’s. Perhaps that is because the people won’t, at that point, deserve to interact directly with God; or perhaps, if we can anthropomorphize God more a moment, God will be so deeply hurt that He doesn’t want His children to see that level of pain on His face…similarly to how a parent deeply hurt by their child might hold back showing deep emotion.

Purim this year is going to be different than ever before. A year ago, we still gathered. A year ago, we didn’t yet really understand what it would mean to be masked in the same way we do today. So the question becomes, how do we do Purim — how do we celebrate the holiday of hiding behind masks — when wearing masks is nothing new or special?

The answer, for me, lies in two Hebrew words many of us know — kavannah and havdalah. Kavannah, or intentionality, is the act of being mindful and purposeful about something. It means taking a moment as we put on our Purim costume and really thinking about what we are doing. It means understanding that we are dressing up for a sacred purpose, to remember the heroism and strength of one brave woman in very unfavorable circumstances over a thousand years ago. Havdalah means separation. We separate so many things as Jews – meat and dairy, the holy and the mundane, the Jewish people and the other nations of the world… This is nothing new. But in setting our intentionality, we create a havdalah–a sacred separation–between the “normal” act of putting on a mask and the holy act of putting on a Purim costume.

Purim is about being who we are not for one night. It’s about celebration and revelry. And we are all pretty good at that, at this point. I don’t think there’s much challenge there. I think the greater challenge lies in what we do the day after Purim. We will wake up the next morning, unlike any year prior, and put a mask on again. Perhaps a surgical mask, or an N95, or perhaps a fashionable mask. The challenge lies in the kavannah with which we put that mask on. How will we use it? Will we use it to hide a part of ourselves from those around us? Will we make an effort to smile and let others see what we are feeling? I would suggest that if Purim is about hiding a part of ourselves behind our masks, the havdalah becomes much more powerful if the rest of our week is about sharing and showing as much of our real selves as possible.

I therefore invite you to take a moment this evening as you put on your costume and make your kavanah, your intentionality, and to really enjoy every aspect of the holiday! But then on Shabbat morning when you put your mask on again and the holiday is over, make a new kavanah — make it somehow different, even special. Don’t hide your face or your emotion. Be open to the world, share with those around you (from a safe distance, of course!), and let your smile shine through.