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Purim: Beyond the playfulness, a time for examination

by Rabbi Eilhu Gevirtz

February 15, 2013 | 2:13 pm

Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim (1685). Image courtesy RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island

Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim (1685). Image courtesy RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island

The central character of Purim is Esther, whose name means hidden. The story is full of things hidden, and waiting for the right time to be revealed. Vashti refuses to expose her sexuality to the drunken men of the King’s court, and chooses instead to be hidden. Esther hides her Jewishness until the time is right to reveal her identity. Haman hides his humanity. The foolish king’s discernment is hidden. Even God is hidden in the story. Only Mordecai is not hidden, making his presence known to save lives. Mordecai is the counterbalance to hiding.  

The characters in the Purim story are archetypes teaching us about ourselves. What do you hide? Are you like Haman who keeps part of himself hidden in response to an old wound, or because it’s too risky to be vulnerable? Are you hiding a part of yourself because you are convinced (incorrectly) that you are not worthy, that your light is not great enough? As Marianne Williamson writes: “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Or, are you hiding that special part of you because you, like Esther, are waiting, strategically, for the right time to serve God? In the first and second scenarios, perhaps it’s time to be revealed. In the third, perhaps it’s better to remain hiding. In the midst of our pain, we ask ourselves, where is God? As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk says, “God is where someone lets Him in.” So let Him in.

How can you let God in when you don’t feel so good about yourself? How can you turn what is hidden in you into something that is good and seen by others? The Baal Shem Tov says lift it up to the light. Lift up the things you’re not so proud of to the light, so that you can see that even that which you keep hidden is your desire for being connected to God. Do this in prayer, meditation, or in confidential conversation with a friend.

On Purim we are told to get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says this means that in this state of drunkenness we don’t know the difference between arrogance and humility. Haman was arrogant and Mordecai was humble, and we assume that being humble is better. But Shlomo says you need both. “All the emotions are very holy because God made them. You only have to know the right time to use them. The truth is, in order to be a servant of God you need a lot of pride.” Pride is like arrogance that will drive you to do something courageous when no one else will do it.

You must also have humility; not humility that makes you think you’re unworthy, and not humility that makes you feel small in relation to other people. The humility you need is to know your relationship to your Creator, your compass of ethical behavior. The holy humility that we require is knowing that everything we have comes from God. Shlomo says that “If you know exactly where to use your humility then you know exactly where to use your pride.”

When it comes to parenting our children or being a partner in relationship, we need to balance pride with humility. When we find ourselves quick to criticize and ready to make our children or partners or our parents feel small, insignificant, or inadequate, we must realize that this is misplaced pride. We need humility to recognize that the people in our lives are souls in human bodies needing acknowledgement and to be treated as holy.

And here’s one of the hidden secrets in the Purim story. When you feel rage and you want to lash out - like Haman did – with judgment, criticism or worse… stop, walk out of the room, splash cold water on your face. Be like Esther. Fast for three days and ask your community for support. Do teshuvah and search for that which is hidden in you. Do the work of teshuvah, returning to the holy spark of the divine that is in you.

The Tikunei Zohar says that Purim is like Yom Kippur. The Sfat Emet explains this statement saying that teshuvah is the key to meeting God face to face. Like Esther who fasts and does teshuvah, we also fast and do teshuvah before Purim. Only after fasting and teshuvah does she enter the king’s domain, and the decree is removed. It’s the same on Yom Kippur. The process of Teshuvah is (in part) coming out from hiding and returning to your commitment to God.

Like the High Priest in the Temple, who fasted before going into the Holy of Holies, we fast, we do teshuvah, and only then do we enter the “King’s domain”. Then the decree is removed, and we start fresh. It is stated in the Talmud (Megillah 14a): “The removal of the king’s ring [that Haman used to seal his evil decree] was greater than the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. For all [of them] were unable to return the Jews to righteousness; whereas removal of the ring returned the Jews to righteousness.” The threat was so real and so severe that the Jews took the responsibility of teshuvah seriously. The Sfat Emet says this teaches the power of teshuvah is so great that it can reverse evil decrees. It can reverse our own decrees.

On this Purim, let us do teshuvah and live lives in which we are all seen rather than hidden. Let us return to living lives that honor the sacred in each other by treating each other ethically and with kindness and patience. Let us be so drunk that we have no fear of bringing God out of hiding and into the stories of our lives.


Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz can be reached at rabbielihu@gmail.com. You can read more at www.rabbielihu.com.

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