On Thursday night we begin our celebration of the most irreverent of Jewish observances — Purim. During this holiday, we read the scroll of Esther, exchange gifts of food, mishloach manot, with friends, acquaintances and family and also offer gifts to the poor. Furthermore, it is considered praiseworthy to drink enough alcohol so that we can not distinguish between the phrases “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman.”
It is also a time when many Jews don costumes and hold masquerade parties. Some have referred to Purim as Jewish Mardis Gras.
The latter chapters of Exodus deal mostly with the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was built in the wilderness and would serve as the spiritual center of the Jewish people until Solomon’s Temple was built in Jerusalem.
However, this week’s Torah portion spends a great deal of time describing the special vestments worn by the kohanim (priests) as they were charged with their priestly duties.
Both the holiday of Purim and the weekly Torah reading focus on special attire. In the case of Purim, we often spend a great deal of time choosing the best costume or mask, and in the parshah, we see how the priests wore unique clothes in their service of God. The high priest had even more ornate vestments, some of which were only worn on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The wearing of the priestly vestments reminds us that certain jobs require us to dress in a unique way. For example, when I was a Navy chaplain, it was not enough for me to wear a nice tie and jacket. I was expected to wear the proper uniform of the day. I would wear a dress uniform for formal occasions, a work uniform if I was simply meeting sailors or marines in my office or even a camouflage uniform if I was involved in tactical operations or military exercises.
Truth be told, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many of us have stopped dressing for success. It’s become a joke to say, “Every night at 9 p.m. I switch from my daytime pajamas to my nighttime pajamas.” Many of us can surely identify with that.
But we can all identify with the challenge of wearing a mask, not for the purpose of celebrating Purim, but for protecting us from contracting or spreading a deadly disease. I have found that there are times when people I know well have not recognized me with my mask on, and there are times when I have not recognized them either. Clearly, wearing masks has its challenges.
Nobody knows exactly how long this pandemic will last. But I look forward to a time when the lessons of both the parshah and of Purim can be realized once again. I long for the day when we will all have occasion to dress up appropriately to attend a wedding, bar or bat mitzvah or simply to go back to work. And I hope that this will be the last year that we have to wear masks to protect ourselves from an invisible scourge.
Hopefully next year we can return to wearing masks on Purim — not for our safety, but exclusively for our joy and merriment. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is a retired Navy chaplain, freelance rabbi and former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.