The Festival of Purim may be the most misunderstood celebration in all Jewish tradition. Even the historical background seems to contradict the template of Jewish history and survival.
Confounded in the cultural and spiritual darkness of Persian exile 2372 years ago, the Jewish people faced a calculated plan for genocide beyond anything devised by Adolph Hitler. A conniving King Ahasuerus, inspired by his devious viceroy, Haman, laid out a scheme to exterminate the entire Jewish nation in a single day.
With the full force of the king and his empire turned against them, how could the Jews hold out any hope of salvation?
But in the wink of an eye, literally overnight, Haman fell out of favor and, through an improbable confluence of apparent coincidences, the Jews became the king's most favored nation while the enemies who conspired to destroy them were themselves destroyed.
And how do Jews commemorate the divine intervention that saved them from annihilation? On this day that the sages equate with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, we replace fasting with feasting, exchange prayerful reflection for revelry, and eschew the simple white garments of purity for masks and costumes.
Purim becomes a day of backwards and inside-out, of contradictions and reversals, of parties and paradoxes.
CHANGE COMES FROM WITHIN
In keeping with the counterintuitive practices of Purim, allow me to conscript a pair of latter-day Jewish cognoscenti to dispel confusion with the light of clarity:
Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack.
In 1982, these Hollywood legends teamed up to produce one of the most brilliant comedic films ever made. (Indeed, Tootsie would have won the Oscar for Best Picture uncontested if not for bad timing. Also nominated that year was Gandhi, and even the Motion Picture Academy couldn't overlook the biography of the revered human rights icon by awarding its highest honor to a movie about a guy in drag.)
Sydney Pollack directed Dustin Hoffman in his portrayal of Michael Dorsey, a talented actor whose contentious personality has so alienated everyone in the acting world that he can't get a job. In desperation, he dons a wig and a dress to audition for the female lead on a soap opera. Almost overnight, Dorothy Michaels, his alter ego, becomes the most popular character-actress in America.
But Tootsie is much more than simple comedy. It is an insightful and introspective story about a man who discovers who he really is only when he pretends to be someone else. The first hint of self-awareness comes when Michael tells his roommate, played by Bill Murray, about his first clash with the show's overbearing director.
He told me what he wanted. I didn't say anything. I did it my way. He bawled me out. I apologized. That was that.
I think Dorothy's smarter than I am.
As Michael Dorsey, he would have flown into a rage and stormed off the set. As Dorothy Michaels, he finds a way to get what he wants while avoiding confrontation.
And that's not all. Within a matter of weeks, Dorothy starts to mentor other actresses on the show, becomes a hero to women all across the country, and wins a proposal for marriage from his co-star's father… which is all the more awkward considering that Michael has fallen in love with the daughter, Julie --- who, along with everyone else, thinks he's a woman.
Meanwhile, Michael's real-life life is devolving into chaos. He's neglecting his girlfriend while trying to manage the secret life he now regrets having gotten himself into. But even as he's living a lie and causing collateral damage all around him, he emerges at the end with a newfound respect for other people and a more mature, disciplined outlook on his career and his relationships.
The payoff comes right at the end when, having finally revealed himself to his love interest, Michael explains:
I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man. Y'know what I mean? I just gotta learn to do it without the dress.
Which brings us back to the Festival of Purim.
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
The world we live in is a deceptive place. People pretend to be what they aren't. Cheap and easy pleasures promise happiness but don't deliver. Life's greatest gifts go unnoticed as they hide in plain sight. The soul summons us to reach for greatness but the body pulls us in the opposite direction.
And we ourselves go into hiding, donning masks to play the parts that we think others expect of us, lying to them and lying to ourselves. We chase empty dreams because we're unwilling, or afraid, to search for fulfilling truths. Often we take refuge in mind-altering chemicals like alcohol to blunt the relentless feeling of futility born of confusion.
Ironically, dressing in disguise provides us an opportunity to be ourselves. If no one knows who we are -- even if we're only pretending that no one knows who we are – we suddenly become free to be ourselves, to drop the masks we wear everyday because we're protected by the masks that hide our identity.
At the same time, we may start to understand others in a way we can't while they're wearing their own everyday masks. By recalibrating our relationships with them, we see them in a new light, and we understand them from a new perspective. And the same time, the same alcohol that can bring out the worst in us or allow us escape from reality, when used in moderation and with the intent of sharpening our sight rather than blurring it, can help us drop the facades imposed on us by external expectations so that we let our real selves shine forth.
By temporarily becoming someone else, we are able to rediscover ourselves. By relinquishing control, we are able to gain mastery over ourselves. By looking at the world from behind a mask, we are able to strip away the masks that hide us from others and hide us from ourselves. And when we do, then we start to understand how Purim really is the season of miracles.
And then, once Purim is over, we try to learn -- like Michael Dorsey -- how to do it “without the dress.”