My wife grew up in a family that took their costumes seriously. Whether it was Halloween or Purim or a themed dress-up party, they did not mess around. With a crafty engineer for a father and a mother whose care for every last detail is unparalleled (especially when it comes to family and celebrations), her costumes never disappointed. So when, for example, she showed up to school dressed as a fully-functional stoplight, it was clear that they took having fun quite seriously in her household.
Thankfully, my wife inherited a combination of both of her parents’ unique gifts, and as such, she takes great care to make one-of-a-kind costumes for each of our three children whenever the occasion calls for it. This past week for Purim, each of our children marched proudly into our synagogue, one dressed as Upside-Down Man, another as Queen Vashti, and our youngest as Winnie the Pooh. Every element of their costumes fit just right, and the accessories they each carried completed their looks perfectly.
But for all of the care that went into getting everything in place at the beginning of the night, after a few hours of raucous singing and dancing, you’d have been hard-pressed to guess what they were supposed to look like. Upside-Down Man was now more or less right-side up, the Queen had left the building, and Winnie the Pooh looked conspicuously like a toddler who had grown tired of wearing her costume.
And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Costumes aren’t meant to last too long. Masks should only be worn for the moment. So when the festivities were over, it was actually a relief to know that our kids were happy to peel away the layers and step back into their own skin.
As part of a series of warnings to the Israelites about worshiping other gods, this week, we read a text that can be understood on a number of informative levels. The most pithy of the commandments reads, simply: “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.” You know, like golden calves, for example.
But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that the Hebrew word for “molten,” masecha, is also the word we use for “masks,” like the kind we wear on Purim. Running with this translation, then, the charge could be read as follows: “You shall not make masks your God.” In this reading, God doesn’t prohibit the use of masks, just the elevating of them to divine status. In other words, they’re not inherently bad news, but they have the potential to become so if we’re not careful.
Think, for a moment, of the various masks you might wear in your everyday life. From the makeup you put on, to the suit you wear, to the fancy new shoes on your feet. More often than not, those items all come off at the end of the day, and you end up staring at a version of your pre-bedtime self that looks just like it did at dawn.
But what about the invisible costumes, the personas you use for any number of good reasons? The “fake-it-til-you-make-it” professional persona, whose confidence seems unshakable. Or the one designed to exude a sense of belonging at a social event, even when inside you feel like an outsider looking in? As useful as these personas can be, when do we take the time to intentionally step out of them, so we can check back in with our authentic selves?
One of the great by-products of Purim is that it invites each of us to hit the reset button on the many masks, disguises, hats, and personas that we don throughout the year. Our culture has so fiercely embraced the use of costumes as a way to hide from ourselves, from one another, and from God; it’s remarkably easy to make these masks into Gods. This annual invitation to step out of those costumes feels more purposeful than ever.
Speaking personally, as someone who has struggled with imposter syndrome for much of my life, it’s actually quite a relief to get to play make-believe for a few hours with an entire community committed to the bit and then to take off the sweaty Purim costume at the end of the evening and see myself – my honest-to-goodness, real self – looking back at me in the mirror. And to do so alongside our children, whose steadfast self-love is demonstrated by the trail of accessories behind them as they step out of their costumes and into themselves, feels like witnessing a miracle in real-time.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck is committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate and connected than the one he found. In pursuit of that commitment he serves as the Executive Vice President at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Founding Executive Director of Glean Network, which partners with Columbia Business School. He was ordained in 2012, and earned his MBA that year, as well.
A sought-after thought leader, he has delivered keynotes at stages ranging from TEDx to the US Army’s General Officer Convocation, published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Religion News Service, has a column for The Wisdom Daily, contributed to Meaning Making – 8 Values That Drive America’s Newest Generations (2020, St. Mary’s Press) and is the co-author of the forthcoming book Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire (2023, Fortress Press).
He also serves as:
- a Founding Partner of Starts With Us, a movement to counteract toxic polarization in America,
- a Research Advisory Board Member of Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on spirituality, mental health and Gen Z,
- a founding board member of Beloved Network, a network of startup Jewish communities, and
- a member of the Board of Advisors of the Changemaker Initiative.
He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife, Lizzie Pollock, and their three children: Micah, Nessa, and Ayla. In his spare time, he finds sanctuary while climbing rock walls around New England and tending to his backyard garden.