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Thought for the Day: ‘Very little in life is quite as it might first appear’

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With both Purim and World Book Day approaching this Thursday, the Chief Rabbi teaches us the importance of looking beyond the masks we wear.

Listen to the Audio here.

You can read the full transcript below.


This Thursday, on World Book Day, children all over the country will go to school dressed up as characters from their favourite stories. Amongst all the Harry Potters, Gruffalos and Mad Hatters, you will also find the occasional Queen Esther and King Achashverosh, as Thursday will also be Purim; the celebration of the survival of the Jewish people in Ancient Persia despite a genocidal decree against them.

One of the festival’s best known and most loved traditions is the wearing of costumes and masks. It is a custom based upon the recurring theme of the festival: that very little in life is quite as it might first appear. While the Purim story took place twenty four centuries ago, there could hardly be a more essential lesson for young people today.

Our new generation of digital natives engage with their peers on social media at least as often, and sometimes more often, than they do in real life, and numerous studies highlight the negative impact this is having on their mental health.

Last week the Bishop of Gloucester appeared on this programme citing research by the YMCA which revealed that more than a third of eleven to sixteen year olds said that they were willing to do whatever it takes to look good. When a young person’s social media feed makes it appear that all around them are living perfect lives, it is no wonder that they might feel inadequate.

This is an old challenge which has simply been augmented and amplified by new technology. We all wear masks. In front of our children we might wear a mask of confidence, in front of work colleagues, a mask of professionalism, and in front of friends a mask of happiness. However, there is a limit to the degree that we can disguise our true selves before it begins to take its toll.

It is telling that in passages serving as the blueprint for a fulfilling life for billions of people across the world, biblical heroes are not portrayed as perfect beings with perfect lives. Joseph was abused by his brothers, King Saul suffered from deep depression, and Leah was locked in a loveless marriage.

And character flaws abound, even amongst our greatest role models. Miriam slandered harmfully, King David committed adultery, and Jacob brazenly deceived his father. Nearly 2000 years ago, the great Jewish sages of the Mishnah taught us not to look at the container, but at what is held within it.

On Purim we teach our children to understand the importance of looking beyond the masks we wear, and taking the time to truly know ourselves and others.