Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remove the Mask

Already short winter days can seem muted. Cold gray skies diminish the opportunity for the sun to be revealed. Frost covers the ground. Concealment is the nature of the season. It is for this reason winter holidays are universally centered around light. These lights quietly look forward to the day when the dark mask of winter which covers the bare earth is removed to reveal the light and life of spring. Ambiguously positioned between these two seasons is the celebration of Purim, a holiday which celebrates both the hidden and the revealed.

Purim commemorates a reversal of fates and the deliverance of the Jewish people from the hands of a wicked foe. The appearance of life from what seemed eminent annihilation is celebrated in the Hebrew month of Adar around February-March. At this time, gift baskets containing sweets and cookies called hamentashen are given to friends and neighbors. A joyous atmosphere on Purim allows for rules to be followed with less rigidity, leaving room for a-little mischief. One of the most popular customs of the holiday is the donning of costumes. To wear a festal mask on Purim, which on the surface seems to be a silly manifestation of the holiday, is in actuality an expression of the hidden nature of redemption.

Redemption often comes from unsuspected sources. The more bleak the circumstances are the more hidden modes of salvation seem. Men and women of immense spiritual stature often appear ordinary, eluding to the idea that the righteous tend to wear masks and redeemers often emerge from unlikely places. The life of Joseph perfectly illustrates this idea. After being sold by his brothers into slavery, imprisoned, and then freed, Joseph was elevated to the highest position in Egypt under Pharaoh. In his absence of over a decade, his family had fallen into great misfortune. The world witnessed famine. Joseph’s brothers, who had convinced their father of Joseph’s death long ago, now personally believed him dead as well. Joseph had been a slave and in times of plenty slaves ate last. In times of great famine, slaves ate none.

Jacob was inwardly shaken by the loss of his son and Joseph’s brothers by the haunting guilt of that loss. More immediately they were physically wasting away. Where would they find sustenance? The son’s of Jacob traveled to Egypt to buy grain from an Egyptian ruler called Zaphenat-paneah. On their second journey into Egypt searching for food this powerful viceroy of Egypt demanded the possession of their youngest brother Benjamin. Rather than allow another of Jacob’s young sons to be lost, Judah offered himself instead. Seeing the change his brothers had undergone, now showing concern for their family rather than disregard, Joseph could not conceal his true identity any longer. Tears washed the Egyptian paint from his face as Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. With compassion he forgave them their past transgressions. Joseph, who had been believed by his father to be dead, now sent carts and camels in order to bring him and the rest of his family out of desolation and famine to live together in the land of Goshen. Redemption came from a dead man, an impossible source, and a deliverer from behind a mask.

Unlike Joseph, who knew he would see greatness from an early age, some redeemers are so hidden they are concealed even from themselves. Roughly 2500 years ago scattered across an empire that sprawled from Ethiopia to India, the Jewish people lived in exile under the rule of a fickle King. In Shushan, the capital of this vast kingdom, lived an Israelite named Mordechai. Mordechai acted as a father to his orphaned cousin Hadassah, more commonly known as Ester. When a search to find a new queen among the young women of the land took place, Ester whose name could be connected to the word “star” was chosen for her beauty.

Ester was more than a beautiful star. She was a redeemer. The new Queen’s name, understood from the rabbinic perspective, means “hidden.” The salvation of the Jewish people would break forth from the hidden aspects of Ester’s life. Before her entrance into the royal house Mordechai instructed Ester to never divulge information regarding her ancestry. Ester’s Jewishness was to remain a secret. One of the king’s administrators was a vicious anti-Semite called Haman. Haman sought the inhalation of the Jewish people. Decrees had been sent throughout the kingdom sanctioning the plan of execution. The death of the Jews would come on a single day. Mordechai pressed his cousin to act and at the risk of her life Ester came before the king on behalf of her people. Haman, whom would be destroyer of the Jewish people, was hanged and all of Israel was saved.

The hidden and the revealed; the festal mask and the Jew under the mask, clearly Purim is more than it seems. As you celebrate the festival of Purim and contemplate Joseph who donned the mask of Egypt, Ester, a Jewish girl who appeared to the world as a Persian queen, and ultimately our King-Mashiach who wore the garments of a servant and a pauper, and today appears to the world as a non-Jewish viceroy, look beneath your own mask. There you may find greatness.


Jennifer said...

Good post, Tim. I'm linking you now.

Your Fave Sis

Dalyn (AKA The Queen of Quite Alot) said...

I agree with Jennifer, very good post. It seems a shame for those of us not jewish, to not be included in these great feasts and celebrations I read about...and a shame most mainstream Christians don't bother to know about and enjoy them. I'm in the weird place of not fitting in with those who have adopted Hebrew ways, and also not fitting in with the mainstreams...weird! It's great to be able to read and see what others like yourself are doing to celebrate and recognize these days of remembrance.
Thanks for the post!

Tim Layne said...

Thanks Dalyn, I would suggest that you go to costume store get a few cheep masks (or make some)nothing fancy needed, get some cokes, some snacks, and rent the movie "One Night with the King." You can watch the film and have a good time the night of Monday, the 9th of March.