Commentary for Purim

6 Mar

Purim is known as a holiday about distorting reality. Esther feigns politeness towards Haman so that he will not suspect it when she springs her trap. We “hide” our identities by dressing in costume. When Haman’s name is mentioned, we boo and hiss to drown his name out in order to fulfill the mitzvah to “completely erase memory of the Amalakites (of whom Heyman was a descendent) from under the heavens” in Deut. 25:19. Esther hides her religion from King Achashverosh, even going so far as to abandon her birth name (Hadasah) for the more Persian-sounding “Esther” (which sounds a lot like the Hebrew word “astir” which means “I will hide”). Despite being a major player in the events of the story, God’s name is not found anywhere in the megilah, neither are there even any references to God at all. The rabbis link these last two ideas together (Chulin 139b) by quoting Deut. 31:8 in which God says “I will keep My countenance hidden,” to show that God’s workings might not be easy to spot, but they are always still there.

 

Strangely, the quote by which the rabbis determine God’s means of saving the Jewish People is actually meant as a rebuke in the context of the verse and the section: “This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst… And yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods (Deut. 31: 16-18).”   This leads us to another oddity of the megilah: usually, when the Israelites are being faced with some sort of extreme danger, we (and they) are explicitly told that it is Divine punishment for some collection of sins. In Esther, just as there is no mention of God as cause of our salvation, there is also no mention of God’s wrath as the reason for the tragedy that almost befell us.

 

The megilah starts out with Achashverosh throwing an extravagant feast to which everyone is invited, so that he can show off his vast wealth and power. With so many guests, Achashverosh had an opportunity to show off all of his fancy stuff, and included in this were “vessels of many varying kinds (Esther 1:7).” The text specifically mentions the diverse assortment of vessels and the reader switches from the regular Esther cantillation to the mournful cantillation of Lamentations for that phrase to teach us that many of them were looted from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. While some have pointed to participating in a feast with defiled holy vessels from the temple as the Jews’ sin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instead posits that the sin was not partaking in the feast, but rather enjoying it. By enjoying the use of sacred items for Achashverosh’s own ego, the Jews are distorting their view of the world, rejecting Divine sovereignty in favor of that of the mortal Achashverosh.

 

In the end, the Jews are saved because of the leadership of two individuals. The first is Mordechai, who is the only one who refuses to bow to the king’s chief minister, Haman, because Jews should bow before the true King of the Universe. The second is Esther, who undertakes a daring plan to win Achashverosh’s favor and convince him to save the Jewish People.

 

As part of her plan, Esther must come before the king uninvited, which was punishable by death if the king so desired it. To avoid execution, Esther knows that she must look pleasing before the king and stroke his ego by prostrating herself before him. Rather than ensure that she looks her best before the king, though, Esther fasts for three days, making her look sickly to the point that not even royal robes can hide it. This is because Esther realizes that although she is physically prostrating herself before Achashverosh so that she can save her people, she is really prostrating herself before God because she knows that ultimately it is God, not Achashverosh, Haman, or anyone else who will be deciding the fate of the Jewish People.

 

Although the story of Purim is one about distorting reality, it is also one about accepting the truth. There are times when we might want to hide the truth, either from others or from ourselves, but in the end it is even more important that we ultimately accept the reality.

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