Of all the holidays of the Jewish year, Purim in particular invites us to play dress up. Whether it is your parents’ old 80s outfits (watch out for the shoulder pads and baggy sweaters), pretending to be your favorite action hero or just putting on a crazy wig- Purim is fun on display.
And the story of the Megillah has dress up as a central theme as well. At the start of the story we see King Achashverosh and his friends dressing for a party. His wife Vashti refuses to ‘dress up’ for them, causing all the ensuing chaos. Esther spends months preparing to appear before the king, finally presenting herself in her finest array. When the king wants to honor Mordechai he dresses him in the king’s clothes. And when Mordechai wants to show his anguish over the danger his people faces he dons sack cloth and ashes to demonstrate his grief.
But given the many ups and downs of the story, the many costume changes of the characters in the book, we are always brought back to one central truth: the clothes don’t tell the whole story. If you want to know how good a person is you shouldn’t rely on the exterior. That layer can be deceptive. It is too easy to pretend to wear your heart on your sleeve, only to change that outfit in the next moment. In fact, the great moment of redemption in the story of Purim is when Esther finally ‘takes off her mask.’ She drops the façade she has worked to uphold, and proudly declares that she is a Jew. Her act of revealing her true self is when pain and fear are transformed into victory and hope.
This lesson about knowing the heart, versus trusting appearances, is an important one. So it is quite ironic that this week’s parashah focuses nearly entirely on the vestments – the costume – of the kohanim. We see in great detail how these holy actors must wear specific, highly regulated articles of clothing. They also are to adorn themselves with outer layers of frontlets and sashes, turbans and breastplates, each outward and symbolic expressions of their role. According to the rabbis, the items described in Parashat Tetzaveh are reminders of deeper values as well: modesty, justice, mercy and self-control.
But if the message of Purim is that we should never trust outward appearances, this seems strange! Why is it that the Torah seems to present these layers of clothing as so holy and so important?
Perhaps the message we are to recall is that we should see every outward expression for what it truly is – a costume. It is easy to wear the cloak of humility, but to be arrogant; to act the part of the pious, but to be cruel. For that reason, our masks and costumes on Purim are entertaining. We know we aren’t Spiderman or Tom Brady-but it’s fun to pretend. At the same time we all need to remember what it is we should aspire to. And even though the Kohanim are only people (in fact many of them were quite flawed), we ask our leaders to wear the costume that expresses our hopes for the kind of leaders we would so like to see in this world. They are certainly nothing more than human beings, but these ancient priests had to put on the clothes that would remind them, and the people of Israel, just what kind of people we should be. Even if wearing the linen garments of purity and innocence were a costume, it is also a call to be people of virtue. And we pray that our leaders, and all of us, might take seriously the mantle we are privileged to wear. After all- the pursuit of our best selves is no joke.
Rabbi Fish, Temple Israel of Sharon, Schechter Parent