What is the significance of wearing costumes on Purim?
A simple Jew was once traveling on a journey. He arrived at a certain town near nightfall, and desperately sought lodgings at the town inn. To his dismay, he learned that there was no room in the inn since a group of soldiers were staying there. He pleaded until the innkeeper let him stay in the room of the General, who was away for the night, on condition that he leave at the crack of dawn. Awakened by the innkeeper while it was still dark outside, the rushed, weary-eyed traveler mistakenly wore one of the General’s uniforms and left. Seeing his military-clad reflection in one of the store windows the simple Jew exclaimed, “That foolish inn keeper woke up the General instead of me!”
All too often we mistakenly define ourselves by how we appear and by what we do. We similarly judge others in the same way, as do others judge us. We are all deceived then by external appearances which often “mis-reflect” the real person within the external attire.
This is a theme in the Purim story. The Jews wrongly partook of the gluttonous, showy feast of King Achashverosh, which the King had intended to culminate in the improper “unveiling” of his Queen, Vashti (Esther 1:1-13). While the Jews’ appearance at the banquet was wrong, it was more an external reflection of their being “under the influence” of their surroundings, than of a true, inner desire to do wrong. Ultimately, they revealed their real identity hiding behind the facade, fasting and praying fervently in repentance to God (Esther 4:1-3).
Purim, then, is a time for reflecting on the idea that people are not always as they appear on the outside. The custom of wearing costumes, especially those of mundane or even evil people or non-kosher animals on Purim makes us ask, “Who is the Jew behind that masquerade of impurity?” And when the person removes his mask, we shout with surprise, “Oh, it’s you — I should have recognized you!” This teaches us that no matter how far a Jew appears to be from God and the Torah, it’s merely an intoxicated masquerade. Behind it all, within, is a holy, familiar Jew — a brother or sister to love, appreciate and respect.