We’ll be celebrating Purim later this month, on March 21, making this a good time to discuss two of the holiday’s themes: the masks that people wear and the power of bullies.
In the 4th-century B.C.E. Purim story, the heroine, Esther, is picked by the Persian ruler, King Ahasuerus, to be his new queen. Esther accepts the position, but doesn’t reveal her religion. Instead, she holds onto that “mask” until one night when she joins the king and Purim’s bully, Haman, at a feast. She then reveals that she’s Jewish, and also informs the king that Haman, his prime minister, has organized a plot to exterminate the Jews on the 13th day of Adar, a day he picked by lottery (hence the name Purim, which is derived from the Persian word “pur,” which means lots).
Ahasuerus, siding with his wife, backs Persia’s Jews and allows them to defend themselves. He also orders Haman, the Hitler of his day, to be hanged, and names Esther’s cousin and the leader of the Jewish people, Mordecai, his new prime minister.
That victory was celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, except in the city of Shushan, which learned about the victory a day later.
In modern times, Jews pause on those same two days of Adar (Adar II during leap years, as in the current year) to celebrate Purim with gusto: the megillah is read and noisemakers are used whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, carnivals and parades are held and hamantaschen are eaten.
Those celebrations, however, are only one part of Purim’s legacy; two others – which are relevant to us daily – are the previously mentioned masks and bullies.
Like Esther, many of us put on invisible masks to help us navigate everyday life. Masks can be useful in helping us act appropriately in different situations. We act differently, for instance, around our close friends and family than we do at work, at parent-teachers’ conferences, while serving jury duty, in a doctor’s office or in other social settings.
The use of masks to restrain our behavior in public – which includes resisting the urge to always say what’s on our minds – is a good thing, because by imposing limits on our behavior, we’re helping to maintain a sense of decorum in modern society.
The failure to wear social masks can lead to the creation of modern-day Hamans. Unfettered by social constraints, these bullies have no filters, and therefore say and do whatever they want.
Such behavior has led to an increase in hate crimes, assaults and road-rage incidents – not to mention the take-no-prisoners mentality that’s pervasive on social media, where vicious and often slanderous attacks have become the norm. Strangers increasingly feel very comfortable attacking strangers.
These modern-day Hamans have no problem hurling insults at people based on their ethnicity, race or gender. People of color, women and immigrants are particularly vulnerable to these attacks, and thanks to the rhetoric used by some politicians, even legal immigrants are feeling increasingly unwelcome in the United States and are reluctant to share their stories.
The way to reverse this trend is to be less judgmental in our daily interactions with people. It can start with small things, such as showing common courtesy, something that I experienced three times during a recent visit to a local movie theater.
The first time occurred when I did what can no longer be taken for granted: holding the door open for a person in a wheelchair. She was thankful and, as fate would have it, I also held the same door for her as I was leaving the theater.
The second instance took place in the theater lobby after the movie was over. My wife noticed a boy crying, and she asked if everything was OK. His mom, touched by our concern, said he was just a bit emotional after seeing “A Dog’s Way Home.” When my wife pointed out that the film had a happy ending, the boy’s mother smiled, and said he was just a little sad. We wished him well.
The third example happened moments later. A police officer stationed in the theater had also seen the boy’s tears, and asked what was wrong. After we explained the situation, she asked us what movie we had seen. We answered by singing the praises of “Green Book,” an Oscar-nominated film, and she mentioned that she and her husband were planning to see “The Upside,” another Oscar hopeful.
Although these exchanges were unremarkable, they encouraged me, because as bad as things can sometimes seem in these polarized times, these conversations with strangers involved the respect, dignity and compassion we all deserve.
These all-too-rare ingredients are essential if we are to stand a chance of countering today’s bullies – both online and in the real world – and reducing the unhealthy polarization that infects today’s society.
LARRY KESSLER (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.