Okay, I have a secret to tell you. But you have to promise to keep it a secret. Promise? Well, then, here goes: I’m a “theater person.” Yep, it’s true. I have a big background in theater, drama, musical theater, sketch comedy, and improvisation. Yes, that means I speak in silly voices and accents sometimes. And, yes, hopefully it does make my sermons at least a little more engaging. I’ve noticed that there are many fascinating similarities between the theater world and the rabbinate, but I suppose those observations will have to wait for another column.
Now that I’ve shared my secret, it will come as no surprise to you that Purim is one of my favorite holidays. I love gathering early with my fellow Purim-spielers, putting on our costumes and make-up, donning our wigs, crowns, and other accoutrements, and getting ready to be silly.
Because, of course, that’s what we all do – regardless of denomination – at this time of year. We sing parody versions of our prayers, we chant from Megillat Esther while shouting out “Boo” to Haman’s name as often as we can. And we get dressed up. Men as kings, women as queens. Men as women, women as men, children as superheroes,… you know how it goes. We paint our faces and wear masks. Another side of us gets to come out; a side that perhaps doesn’t get to come out the whole rest of the year. Never mind the fact that we are commanded to drink “Ad lo yada,” until we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman – the hero and the villain – anymore.
Sadly, I find myself feeling more reserved this year, and it is due to a story that is, unfortunately, not as black and white as the Purim story. There is no villain to “boo,” and there are many, many innocent people who have lost their lives. It puts all of our other petty disagreements and trivial squabbling into perspective. I speak of the earthquake that took place in Japan on March 11. In the days since the tragic events began, we have had no respite from the terrible news coming from the Far East.
If it had only been an earthquake, it would have been enough to make us cry.
If it had only been a tsunami, it would have been enough to break our hearts.
If it had only been nuclear meltdown, it would have been enough to unite the global community in efforts to help those hurt and affected.
But, oy, it was all three. And there may be more events to come. The numbers of lives lost keeps growing, and tales of horrific poverty, hunger, and devastation continue to flood the airwaves. Esther may have saved the day and caused Achashverosh to reverse his evil decree all those centuries ago, but there is no character in place to reverse the disasters that have struck the Japanese.
Yet, this does not mean that all hope is lost. Though there is no human villain for us to “boo,” our common enemy is apathy. We all must do what we can to help. Just as other countries supported us during the recovery from 9/11 or during the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina (even when we couldn’t help ourselves), we must now do our part, regardless of our politics, our affiliations, or our favorite cable news program.
We must not become the villain by allowing too much time to go by (as Hillel would say, “If not now, when?”), or by just turning off the news. Luckily, many North American Jewish organizations have partnered together to create the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which is coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Making a donation to this coalition will be an easy, effective way of helping the recovery efforts in Japan.
We Jews have an obligation to take care of all those who are suffering in the world. If we celebrate the idea that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, then we must also remember that all other human beings were created in the image of God, as well. When one of God’s creatures suffers, then we all suffer. One of the most poignant lessons we Jews have learned through our agonizing centuries of persecution is how to feel compassion for others in pain.
Thus, while you are putting on your Purim masks, I hope you will take off other masks. The masks that separate Jew from Jew, person from person. The masks that make you feel that you are too busy to reach out beyond your comfort zone. The masks that create distance between you and other cultures, religions, lands, or peoples. As we learn in Midrash Tehillim, “"What is might? When you see people about to fall, and you rescue them." Perhaps, once our masks are removed, we will see those who are falling; we can be the ones to rescue them.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004