Backman’s Corner: Why do we dress up on Purim? Where did this tradition come from?

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By Eli Backman
For the Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

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It all started one year after someone celebrated a little too hard and didn’t want anyone to know who he is, was and what he did…

Okay the story of Purim, Cliff notes style:

Characters listed in book

Mordechai, Esther, Haman, Achashverosh, Vashti, Charvonah, Bigsan and Seresh. These individuals crossed paths in the year 356 B.C.E., and all of them took part in the story of Purim.

The story of Purim is unique in the Bible –Tanach – in that it is a complete book without one mention of G-d’s name. Throughout the entire story of Mordechai and Esther fasting and praying to G-d, it never mentions G-d as listening or answering, etc. It only tells about how Queen Esther decided to approach King Achashverosh and save her people from being killed by wicked (boo) Haman. The king listened to her and granted her request to kill Haman and save her people, the Jewish people.

One minute, you ask, “Each year we celebrate Purim and we talk about the miracles that happened to our ancestors on those days? Isn’t a miracle by definition an act of G-d? Please update your character list and put G-d on it?“

In our regular daily life in College Park, there don’t seem to be ‘wow’ miracles happening. The time you passed that physics test was probably a ‘wow,’ but maybe not a miracle, but G-d does not seem to be that involved any more in the miracle business. Yet we understand that G-d plays a part in our daily lives, which is why we daven – pray – daily.

This is the lesson of Purim, that even when we do not see G-d involved in our ‘world’ G-d really is there. Even if G-d’s involvement is concealed, when we take a moment to look beyond what we see, we can surely find G-d there. (In Hebrew, the name Esther comes from the same root as the Hebrew word ‘concealed.’) After all, who put Esther in the palace? Who worked it out that all the details in the story would happen they way they did? Of course it was G-d.

On Purim we dress up to actualize this idea, so that when you look at someone you don’t know who is behind the mask, you need to take a moment and look beyond it. Not everything that you see in the world is what it really is.  It may look like an old man hobbling towards you but in fact it is a young girl with some great dress up skills. The same is with G-d’s interaction in the world, there are miracles, openly seeing G-d’s involvement and then there is every day where G-d is behind the scenes and not openly seen.

This played out concept is really a deep and profound idea that everything that happens can be a miracle, even if it is not a ‘wow’ moment. The fact that everything in the world runs smoothly and everything falls into place, like in the story of Purim, is not just ‘nature’ but it is also a regular ‘occurrence’ miracle. We just have to retrain ourselves to see behind the mask. On second thought, finding that parking place on campus may actually be a ‘wow’ miracle too.

Eli Backman is the rabbi at UMD Chabad. Backman’s Corner is a monthly column alternating between an opinion piece and an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ format. Chabad will be celebrating Purim on March 11 (night) and 12 (all day). Contact chabad@umd.edu for more information.

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