By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
OTS Founder, Chancellor Emeritus and Rosh HaYeshiva
What does our sober and moderate Judaism, with its emphasis on “You shall be holy,” have to do with a masquerade ball? And yet, that is precisely what characterizes our celebration of Purim, replete with (often outlandish) costumes and an abundance of the fruit of the grape or even some other far stronger “spirit”. Indeed, the Sages are quite direct in their teachings: According to Rava, “A person is required to drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai (B.T. Megillah 7b).” And the 16th-century Ashkenazie legal authority, Rav Moshe Isserles (RaMah) rules that women must dress as men and men as women on Purim day. Suddenly the two opposites of nature and history- male and female, Mordechai and Haman- become confused and interchanged, fundamental perceptions are allowed to become blurred and transmuted. The festival seems to be expressing a profound insight into the very nature of perception: what appears to be one thing is really its binary opposite, and what we think is a blatant lie may, in fact, be a most fundamental truth.
The Holy Zohar calls our world “alma d’shikrah”, a world of falsehood and deception. The Talmud records the impression of a Sage who was privileged to glimpse the true world-to-come in a dream: “It is a topsy-turvy world that I see; those who are above are below, and those who are below are above.” Apparently, our world is filled with false claims and insidious veils, with people and events not at all what they appear to be.
Let us examine the Scroll of Esther itself, the special text which we read twice – evening and morning on Purim. The major personalities depicted in the scroll are not at all what they see to be. We first encounter Ahashverosh as the ruler of 127 states, ostensibly one of the most powerful men on the planet, an imperial potentate who required only three years to amass provinces and power. The world repeated at every juncture- punctuating every paragraph – is king, which to the ancient wo4rld conjured ultimate authority. And then this king inaugurates a lavish banquet – 180 days of feasting and cavorting: who would dare stand up to such a resplendent and all-powerful ruler? Well, one individual does – a woman, his wife. She alone is not afraid and snubs him publicly, refusing to appear at his behest, to show off her beauty before the assemblage of men. Ahashverosh’s kingdom may extend halfway around the world, but he doesn’t have the power to change his own wife’s mind”….Vashti refused to come at the word of the king…” (Esther 1:12)
What might have remained a domestic quarrel turns into a national crisis when Ahashverosh’s cabinet gets involved in Vashti’s rebuff. Perhaps had it been up to Ahashverosh, he would bury his wounded pride inside another cup of wine, but his ministers exaggerate Vashti’s behavior. They castigate her, not because she had dishonored the King, but rather because her disobedience casts a dangerous precedent for the women of the kingdom, who may now all rise in a mass rebellion against their husbands (1:12).
For the ministers, Vashti’s independent spirit must be crushed. And despite the presumed power of a king in his own kingdom, Ahashverosh must bend not only to Vashti but also to his Ministers. He apparently sends Vashti to her death, a decision he deeply regrets, especially when his wine-soaked eyes face a new day. How powerful then is this powerful king who cannot sustain his own wife the queen?! Moreover, his impotence is clearly revealed at the end of the Megillah Scroll as well, when – even after he becomes disillusioned with Haman – he is unable to revoke Haman’s (sic) decree to murder the Jews of his Kingdom. At best, he can only grant the Jews the right of self-defense!
Ostensibly, Ahashverosh seems to be an omnipotent royal despot; in truth, he is a weak figurehead, manipulated by everyone around him. When we turn to Haman, the initial reading of the Megillah text depicts a courtier on the fast track to honor, glory and control. He ascends as a meteoric shooting star in the magisterial galaxy, pushing aside with cruel disdain whoever stands in his way; indeed when Mordechai the Jew refuses to bow down to him, not only does he gain the right to destroy his recalcitrant subject but to wipe out his entire ethnic tribe- all of the Jews as well. Haman appears at the height of his power. He prepares a tree as the gallows from which to hang Mordechai the stubborn Jew and is invited by the queen to join with her and the king in a private and exclusive dinner party.
So certain is Haman of his royal favor and position that when the King asks him how he might show honors to a deserving individual, he is certain that the King means him; but he overplays his hand. He not only suggests that the King give the individual his royal garb and set him on his royal steed, but he goes so far as to advise that he receive the royal crown as well. This the King does not do – and perhaps at this moment, a red light goes off in Ahashverosh’s mind regarding Haman’s real loyalty. In any event, unbeknownst to Haman or the reader, the Grand Vizier is playing right into Esther’s hands, as we shall soon see. Haman’s swelled pride must have reached the bursting point when he is invited to turn a royal tete-a-tete into a power ménage a trois!
But happily for Jewish history, the opposite is the case (ve’nahapoch hu); things are not as they appear to be on the surface. Haman’s invitation is not a proof of his glory but is rather a set-up for his imminent falls, meticulously planned by the brilliant strategist, Esther. Esther is planting seeds of jealousy in the envious heart of Ahashverosh, preparing the way for Haman’s disgrace and destruction. It may appear as if Esther is honoring Haman; in reality, she is causing Ahashverosh to suspect his minister of an adulterous liaison. Indeed, the very tree from which he – and we, the readers- thought that Mordechai would hang becomes the gallows for Haman himself- mutatis mutandis!
Even Esther and Mordechai eventually play a different role in the drama than they appear to be playing in the beginning. Esther may be taken to the King’s beauty contest – but she doesn’t go kicking and screaming. And when Mordechai tells her not to reveal her familial and religious identity, she appears to be setting the precedent for the American Secretary of State. Could it be – as it appears to be- that Mordechai and Esther are garnering prestige and power within the royal court at the expense of their Jewish commitment? After all, a Jewess is religiously enjoined to give up her life before she may publicly live with a gentile, even if he is a royal potentate!
Ultimately, the truth is revealed when Mordechai explains to Esther: “Don’t imagine within your soul that you’ll manage to escape, within the King’s house, from the fate of all the Jews. For if you maintain silence, enlargement and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source; but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you attained royalty just for a time like this (4:13-14)? And, of course, Esther does put her life on the line, thereby becoming a supreme heroine of Jewish history.
Thus the events of Purim reveal three figures whose external realities are not what they appear to be and become sharply re-focused. The powerful king’s sword is wooden, the mighty dictator hangs from his own gallows, and the beauty queen carries within her heart the soul of the nation.
How and why do all these changes occur? The one name which does not appear on the surface of the Megillah Scroll because superficially it does not seem to belong together with all the partying and carousing in the King’s Court is the name of God. God and His design for the ultimate redemption of His nation may not appear to be directing the drama of history – but He is the true and hidden hero (as it were) of the story of Purim. Certain individuals may think that they are at center stage – but in reality, the true designer is God.
The Talmud also teaches us that the truest character of the individual is revealed by his drink, his pocket, and his anger. We generally present ourselves very differently from what we really are, the word personality coming from the word persona which means mask. It is rare that our masks are removed, and the truest essence of who we really are becomes revealed. This happens, teach our Sages, when the individual is angry, when he must decide about money, and when he is under the influence of intoxicating beverage.
On Purim, when we remove the masks at the masquerade ball and express our truest selves, there is also a commandment that we drink. Purim wants us to experience, first hand, the hidden nature of reality. Don’t judge a Haman by his brow, an Ahashverosh by his sword, and an Esther by the jewels in her Persian crown….Wait, and the invisible lines beneath the text of life itself will surface. God, whose name does not appear in the Book of Esther, remains the Invisible Power. Indeed, our celebration of the festival itself conceals its true character. It may look like a down-to-earth, eating and drinking and having a roar of a good time kind of festival, easy n the children and opening up peoples’ hearts. But lurking below the surface of Purim is perhaps the holiest festival of all; it tells us who we really are and warns us to look beneath the surface in order to perceive the truest reality.