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Righting a World Turned Upside Down

Purim 2020 was the last in-person event celebrated by many Jewish communities around the country before the COVID-19 shutdown. Little did we understand that the essential psychological principle of Purim of hafichut – the reversibility of our world – would come to mean something even more profound than what we had come to expect.

On Purim we remember how the world turned upside down for the Jews of Shushan, where “grief turned into joy, a day of mourning into a day of celebration.” (Esther 9:22) In response, we celebrate with food and drink, revelry, and maybe even a little hedonism. Somehow, the way to deal with our lack of control is to throw caution to the wind, and enjoy all that we can, and give to others so they might enjoy life as well.

Usually, we dress in costumes that often reveal our shadow side or a more playful one; we are to drink ad d’lo yada – until we cannot distinguish between the goodness of Mordecai and the evil of Haman; and most meaningfully, we confront the real possibility that divine redemption remains hidden from us, and we humans must reveal the divine within us to transform the world. This year, more than ever, the holiday and its prescriptions come to remind us that we are not completely powerless in the face of life’s capriciousness; we can live lives of meaning and purpose; we have the power to make for ourselves a life worth living, and we can do our best to keep one another safe.

It is strange the Scroll of Esther contains no reference to God by name, and yet represents the most sacred of days to be carried over into the world to come. Singular among the books of the Bible, the Book of Esther masterfully delivers the combined explosive energies of laughter, randomness, sexuality and violence, but it never delivers God’s name.

On the one hand, the narrative of the Scroll of Esther is a relief from the minutiae of the instructions to build the mishkan that we find in this week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh. The portion details the furnishings of the tabernacle and the role and investiture of the priests. But the opening verse of the portion makes a connection between the two texts.

The Israelites are instructed to use clear olive oil to light the ner tamid (continuous light) that burns from evening until morning (Exodus 27:20-21). Light is often understood as divine, the source of revelation and commemoration and juxtaposed with darkness and forgetting. It is also the continuous light that is meant to remind us of the presence of God, even in the darkness of doom. The midrash asks whether a person can really light a lamp out of the darkness, or is that just reserved for God? The Israelites are commanded to light the lamps to retain and transmit something for all to literally, see, and thereby remember. (Leviticus Rabbah 31:8)

Megillat Esther is a story about hiddenness/being in the dark and revelation. The root of the name Esther – s-t-r – means hidden, but the root of the word megillah is g-l-h – which means reveal. The play back and forth between these ideas is constant in the text. Vashti refuses to reveal her body to the King’s feasting guests; Esther’s identity remains secret in the story, until it serves the important purpose of her standing up to the violence of Haman; Haman hides his true plan for the Jews; and King Achashverosh is in the dark about the plot to kill the Jews.

At the same time, Purim is about searching below the surface — the invitation to pierce through randomness, vulgarity, and violence in order to uncover meaning and God’s Presence precisely because the character of God is completely hidden in the text.

By the middle of the story that which was hidden in the dark come to the light and, the “holy” message is revealed. The pivot revolves around Esther’s reluctance to go to the King uninvited, and Mordechai’s sober message to her: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace…Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (4:13,10)

It is this message that propels Esther to stand up to Haman by going to the King to stop the impending massacre. The revelations fall like dominos: Mordecai is paraded in royal garb, revealing his honor of the King; Haman’s wife Zeresh reveals that her husband will be defeated; Esther reveals her identity; the sackcloth and ashes worn by Mordecai are replaced to reveal happiness and honor, fasting turns into feasting.

God may be hidden, but the godly acts of defiance to save the people are what we remember and celebrate on Purim. We affirm and celebrate the potential for transformation because without Esther’s courage and commitment, there could be no light and joy with which the story concludes. Without the hiddenness of God, humanity would not understand that we are critical to the transformation of the world from what it is into what it could be.

This year, amidst the heartbreaking milestone of 500,000 American deaths to the pandemic, and the continued isolation from in person celebration, let Purim celebrate the miracle of human self-redemption. Let us continue to take seriously the charge we bear to transform the world in holiness.

Perhaps it is for this moment we have the power that we do to bring light into the darkness, and with strength and conviction, to realign and steady our world turned upside down.

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