April 14, 2024
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Purim: Reconnecting With Our True Selves

The Sin

The talmidim were struggling to find an answer. Why were the Jews of Achashveirosh’s empire threatened with annihilation? What terrible sin had they committed? They suggested that they were being punished for having participated in the hedonistic 180-day Shushan feast1. If so, responded their rebbe, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashb”i), only Shushan’s Jews should have been culpable2.

The talmidim at a loss, Rashb”i provided them with the answer. The Jews were being punished for having worshipped avodah zarah.3 If so, asked the talmidim, why were the Jews ultimately saved? If they were guilty of the grave sin of avodah zarah, they should have actually been annihilated.

Rashb”i offered a profound answer. The Jews were spared because they did not actually believe in the avodah zarah they were physically bowing to. They were forced to bow, but it was not their true belief. Hashem, explained Rashb”i, responded in kind: He made believe that he intended to decree the Jews’ annihilation even though He did not actually intend it.4

Many commentaries5 ask an obvious question: If the Jews were not truly committed to the avodah zarah they were forced to bow to, why did Hashem pretend to decree their annihilation? Though bowing down to avodah zarah is never justified, when done so under duress it is not a punishable offense6.

 

Posturing

I believe the answer lies in the danger of posturing. People do their best 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 is that people get so used to “speaking the language of others” that their own often becomes blurred.

The challenge of interfacing with others while maintaining our cultural independence is even greater when we are in galut, living and functioning in a foreign society. Though we avoid full assimilation in the surrounding culture, we do our best to assimilate within it. Often Jews are unable to truly be themselves. The Megillat Esther example of this is Esther herself who is unable to reveal her true identity in Achashveirosh’s court7. At what point do the things we “make believe” we identify with become what we truly identify with, who we actually are?

When the Jews “acted” as if they were serving a foreign god and identifying with their host nation, the true God acted as if He was severing His relationship with them by causing those very nations to turn against them. Throughout the ages, when Jews mistakenly came to view themselves as part of the nations we lived amongst, Hashem had these nations reject us 8.

 

The Moment of Truth

After Haman’s decree, the Jews faced a moment of truth, a moment of personal reflection. Which “world” was their real one? What was their true identity?

Thankfully, the Jews were able to reconnect with and sharpen their true identity, which allowed for Esther to do the same9. The Jews clarified their true selves and Hashem clarified His true intentions. Sefer Tehillim10 describes God as our shadow. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that God’s relationship with us reflects our’s with 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.

 

Purim Customs:
Revealing by Concealing

The costumes customarily worn on Purim remind us that our actual faces and dress may not accurately reflect our true selves. Concealing our external selves gives us the opportunity to emulate our Purim-era ancestors by reconnecting with and embracing our true internal selves.

 

Today’s Global Village

These issues are even more relevant and challenging for people living in the contemporary global village era. Even Jews living in the Jewish State of Israel continue their connection, interaction and close relationships with the broader world. The internet and the impersonal communication it offers allow for people to maintain and cultivate multiple identities. Do our awareness, immersion and multiple identities blur our true identity and beliefs?

Purim is a time to address and answer this question. Though always relevant and important, Purim has added a unique relevance to Jews in the 21st century. As we return to our land, we need to ensure that the process includes our return to our true personal and national selves.

Modern communication allows us to continue impacting the world even as we separate geographically from it. Purim is the time to ensure that this continued engagement allows us to impact without blurring our religious and cultural identity.

May our noble intentions merit Hashem’s assistance in helping us succeed at this mission—bayamim hahem bazman hazeh!


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

1 Megillat Esther 1:4. 

2 It seems that the sin of participating in the hedonistic meal warranted, in principle, a decree of annihilation. This should teach us how problematic hedonism is. See Rashi on Megillat Esther (4:1) who connects the sin of avodah zara with that of hedonism. When life lacks meaning it can easily default into avodah zara.

3 Rashi (D”H Shehishtachavu) explains that this refers to a sin in the time of Nevuchadnezar.

4 Talmud Bavli, Megillah 12a.

5 See, for example, Maharsha et al.

6 See, for example, Rambam Hilchot Avodah Zarah 3:6.

7 Megillat Esther 2:20.

8 See, for example, Yechezkel 20:32- 34.

9 Megillat Esther 7:4.

10 121:5.

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