Purim 5779: The Mask of Mortality

This week Jewish communities all across the globe will gather to don costumes and  masks to celebrate the tale of Esther and Mordecai. From Megillah to carnivals, celebrations are the rule. This Purim brings some other reflection. This is a very personal blog as it comes in the midst of a series of encounters with close friends all of whom are dealing with serious illness and death. Have you ever had one of those weeks or months that it seems that every phone call brings more bad news? As I was driving home from the latest flight, the confluence of these past few days and Purim jumped up. What occurred to me is that the reality of mortality is the one sure way to ensure that the masks we wear in daily life are stripped bare.

As you would expect in our generation, there are several “comforting” cliches that greet these moments. “Old age is not for sissies”, or “you know we are at that age”! All of this is true. As a sports fan, especially baseball, I often think of our age as being “at bat”. Most of us now are “orphans”; our parents having died. There is no generational buffer anymore. We are “next up”. We do our best to “mask” this reality until we hit one of those stretches that bring home to us the reality of our own mortality. The “mask” is ripped off and we are forced to “see”, maybe with new eyes, life as it is. Most of us, I think, retreat back into putting a new mask on, as reality is often too challenging, depressing and real to consider. Yet, that reality lingers in our soul. Some of us do make life changes. We are reminded that we do have the power to choose what this next phase of life will be for us. These choices are very personal. There are no “right or wrong” choices.

It may be that , as the masks come off, we also confront the fact that for so many of us we lack a sense of foundation or rootedness. As I travel and do our Jewish Sacred Aging® work I am always struck by the expressed need for so many of our generation for connection and community. It may be that because so much of “real life” is so fragmented and disjointed, that we come to a realization that we need some sense of stability in life. That is why synagogues are so important, by the way. It is rarely theology that draws us, rather it is community. Decades ago, Dr.Gene Borowitz, a beloved professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote a seminal work entitled “The Mask Jews Wear”. The book, originally published in 1973, had this comment on the nature of our souls in light of society that seemed to be lacking “firm foundation”: “Such integrity of self is especially difficult to come by today. We have  so little certainty. Our beliefs tend to be temporary and fleeting. So we give the bits and pieces of our devotion to this and that, for shorter or longer periods.But, because there is little that is basic and lasting in us, our lives periodically reveal their emptiness, and we must acknowledge that we are neither integrated or whole. Fragmentation and insecurity are our most pervasive personal and social maladies today.” (p. 211)

When we are confronted by the reality of mortality, and when that confrontation comes close to us, it is then when we reach out for a sense of security, community and a “firm foundation” against which we can make sense of our life’s journey. Taking off the “masks” of daily life can be difficult, at times, even painful in a spiritual as well as emotional way. These are the challenges that face us as we enter and journey through this stage of life. May we be comforted by community and may we all have the strength the deal with the “Hamens” that rise up to confront us.


Rabbi Richard F Address

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