Purim: Reconnecting with Our True Selves
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
The students were struggling to find an answer. Why were the Jews of Achashverosh’s empire threatened with annihilation? What terrible sin had they committed? Perhaps they were being punished for participating in the hedonistic 180-day Shushan feast? If so, responded their rebbe, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, only Shushan’s Jews should have been culpable.1
With his students at a loss, Rabbi Shimon provided the answer. The Jews were punished for worshiping idols.2 If so, asked the students, why were the Jews ultimately saved? If they were guilty of idolatry, G-d should have allowed them to be destroyed!
Rabbi Shimon explained: The Jews were spared because they did not actually believe in the idols they physically bowed to. Though they were forced to bow, it was not an expression of their true belief. And so Hashem responded in kind, pretending to decree the Jews’ annihilation, even though he did not actually intend it (Megillah 12a).
The commentators ask: If the Jews were not truly committed to the idols they were forced to bow to, why did Hashem pretend to decree their annihilation? Though bowing down to idols is never justified, it is not a punishable offense when done under duress (Rambam, Avodah Zara 3:6).
The answer lies in the danger of posturing. By nature, people try to relate to the different types of people they interact with. We look for common ground and try to speak each other’s ‘language’. The danger, however, is that by trying to relate to others we can forget our own identity.
The challenge of interfacing with others while maintaining our cultural independence is even greater when we live and function in a foreign society in exile. Despite her status as queen, Esther herself was unable to reveal her true identity in Achashverosh’s court (Esther 2:20).
The consequences of this dual identity can be severe. Even if we avoid full assimilation into the surrounding culture, we are often unable to truly be ourselves. Over time, the values we “pretend” to believe become who we truly are!
For this reason, in the Purim story and throughout the ages,3 when the Jews pretended to serve a foreign god and outwardly identified with their host nation, G-d acted as if He was severing his relationship with them by causing those very nations to turn against them. Hashem recognizes the grave danger in “pretending”, and does what is necessary to ensure His people do not assimilate.
The moment of truth
After Haman’s decree, the Jews faced a moment of truth. Which ‘world’ was their real one? What was their true identity?
Thankfully, the Jews were able to reconnect with and sharpen their true identity, allowing Esther to do the same (Esther 7:4). They clarified their identity, and in response, Hashem clarified his true intentions.
Sefer Tehillim describes G-d as צִלְּךָ, as our “shadow” (121:5). The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that G-d’s relationship with us reflects the way we relate to Him. When we muffle our identity, He muffles his love and care for us. When we assert our true selves, He expresses his true love.
Revealing by concealing
The costumes we customarily wear on Purim remind us that our faces and clothing may not accurately reflect our true selves. By wearing costumes and concealing our external selves on Purim, we emulate our ancestors by reconnecting with and embracing our true, internal selves.
Today’s global village
The burning issues of the Purim story are particularly challenging for people living in the contemporary global village. Even Jews living in the Jewish State of Israel connect to, interact with, and are deeply immersed in the broader world. The impersonal communication so prevalent online allows us to cultivate multiple identities. But do our multiple identities and immersion in the broader culture blur our true identity and beliefs?
Though meaningful for all generations, Purim is uniquely relevant to Jews in the 21st century. Purim is the time to ensure that our engagement with other cultures does not blur our own religious and cultural identity. Though we must try to impact the broader world, we cannot do so at the expense of our own uniqueness.
As we return to our own Land, may we also return to our true personal and national selves – bayamim hahem bazman hazeh!
1 It seems that participating in the hedonistic meal warranted, in principle, a decree of annihilation, indicating that hedonism is deeply problematic. Rashi (Esther 4:1) connects idolatry to hedonism.
2 Rashi (Shehishtachavu) explains that this refers to a sin in the time of Nevuchadnezzar.
3 See Yechezkel 20:32–34.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.