I admit it…Purim is a hard holiday for me. The silliness and costumes, the liberties we take are a little to risky for me. I like calm and controlled. I have a hard time with the creative, free-spirited spiels that Purim invites.
But the Torah of Purim…I get that!
I get it because it is our story… the ultimate Diaspora story.
When Rabbi Mark Borovitz was here last month, teaching about addiction and hopelessness, he said that the Jewish response is to see ourselves in our own texts. Can we see ourselves in the Torah? Of course we can!
Esther sees a job vacancy and wants to apply. She finds herself in the role of queen, but when she is looking to achieve this Persian title, she hides her real name, Hadassah, and uses Esther. While some say that Esther is of Persian origin (from the goddess Ishtar), the Hebrew suggests something grander. The Hebrew verb connected to Esther, or Ester, is L’hastir – to be hidden. It is fascinating to consider some of the meanings in this. Esther hides her true identity as she lives in the Diaspora of Persia (today: Iran). She represses who she is and doesn’t use her Hebrew name (Hadassah means “myrtle” – a part of the Land of Israel).
I think that her experience can resonate with a lot of America’s Jews. We feel strongly about being Jewish but sometimes have a hard time expressing it outwardly. While past generations might have changed their ethnic names to American ones, we might be more willing to be identified as Jews than Esther or earlier Jewish immigrants, yet our drive to blend in is just as profound as Esther’s.
Remember, as Haman, the Purim story’s antagonist and ultimate enemy of the Jews of Persia, plots the annihilation of the Jews of Persia, Esther is reluctant to respond. She doesn’t want to do it. She doesn’t want to reveal that she is one of “them.” Yet, in a tremendous act of courage, she strategically reveals that Haman is plotting the extermination of her own people. Good for her! She stood up. But look at how long it took.
I think the Scroll of Esther is the ultimate Diaspora Jewish story, challenging our sensibilities about blending in and fitting in, rather than truly belonging to a meaningful community. It makes so much sense now, to consider how we put on these masks to celebrate Purim when, really all along, the story is about our ancestors and ourselves wearing masks. Can Purim be the time when we take them off and reveal our true selves the way Esther does? It might take time…we can’t really fault her for being afraid of revealing her authentic self. But once she does, she changes the world.
I love the Torah of Purim – let’s take off our masks and seek to be known. Let’s come together in fun to build a community where everyone can belong without any more masks.
The other most significant ultimate truth in the Scroll of Esther (for me) is that word – L’hastir – to be hidden. God’s name isn’t mentioned once in the Megillah/Scroll. Not once. Does that mean God isn’t present? Of course not… It means that God, too, is hidden. Not absent. Not AWOL. But hidden. The famous Chasidic story helps us understand why this is so: The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked: “Where does God dwell?” He answered, “God dwells wherever we let God in.”
This Purim, let us celebrate life with joy, let us strengthen our community by making sure everyone can feel like they belong (not just fit in) by removing the masks that are attempts to protect us. Let us be together and laugh together…even at ourselves. How liberating might that be!