One summer when I was a counselor at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, we handed out plain white masks to our 14-year-old campers. I asked them to draw or write the things that they hid behind on those masks. What can only be described as fervent writing followed the prompt. Words, experiences, and pictures filled up the masks. I learned about their fears about high school, their insecurities about themselves, the power of peer pressure, and alluring vices. Everyone had a story, and in the safety of our bunk, situated within the intentionality of camp, the stories flowed freely. Just identifying what we hide behind opened up a summer-long dialogue about how to come out from beneath the masks that we wear.
When recalling this camp memory, I often think of the holiday of Purim. When faced with the capriciousness of life, we escape it with revelry and masks. We are commanded to “drink on Purim until that person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai” (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b). We dress up to escape or perhaps to reveal buried parts of ourselves. Purim causes us to question who we are, when we layer on masks upon masks. The masks can be an opportunity to show parts of ourselves that otherwise are hidden. The holiday celebration can be a release from the societal norms and bonds that box us in for this short period of time. Just as the heroine of the Purim story, Esther, has to hide her Jewish identity, we hide behind masks during the year. Purim gives us license to let loose, playing with our inhibitions, dress, and strict behavioral codes. We are encouraged to get drunk, after all.
The blurring of the boundaries has taken on new meaning this year as the coronavirus (COVID-19) has required us to put more masks between one another. While experts now say that surgical masks may cause more harm than good, we are adding barriers by not hugging, hand shaking, or even passing the yad from person to person after reading Megillah or Torah. The term “social distancing” is a reminder that gathering together now can cause harm if the virus spreads. There are members of the New York Jewish community and beyond who celebrated Purim from the confines of their quarantined homes. Instead of loosened inhibitions this year, we are hyper aware of human contact, and of not breaking down our boundaries of personal space. The release of Purim was harder for some who streamed the Megillah reading from the privacy and safety of their homes.
Once again, we are reminded of the fragile place between hiding and feeling vulnerable in public. As we await for media reports and for stores to restock their supplies of Purell, the question of this year’s Purim circumstances still hold. How do we take off our masks and connect, allowing ourselves the release of Purim in a new medical reality?
In his poem “Masks,” Shel Silverstein explores the dangers of disconnection and hiding:
She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by—
And never knew.
By acknowledging our fears and the masks that hold us back from connection, even if our Purim celebrations felt or looked different this year, we still can find ways to be seen and to connect spiritually. I have found that by just acknowledging truths, whether it be why we are not shaking hands or hugging or by saying what we are hiding or struggling with, that we can open up new avenues for authentic connection. By listening to one another and allowing emotions to surface, we can be seen and we truly can see one another. By creating a culture where emotions are valued and not masked behind drinking or fears of contracting the virus, then we can truly be ourselves and engage in spiritual connection during an unusual time.
We read in Megillat Esther 9:22 that “grief turned into joy, a day of mourning into a day of celebration.” We do not know how long the coronavirus will spread or how many people will be affected. The fear that feels present in the air does have a dark power. Amidst the celebrations and precautions, we did not shy away from the frightening reality that as much as we try to assert control, life is fragile and unpredictable. The Jews of Shushan and the Jews of today share this reality. As we navigate this uncharted territory of paying attention to how often we touch our faces or embrace another person, let’s not hide from our needs for social and spiritual connection even during this time of social distancing. May we find ways to talk about our fears in productive ways so that we do not pass each other by and miss on opportunities for connection, emotional support, and celebration.