Friday, March 18, 2011

Behind the Mask

Just a few weeks after G-d took the Jews out of Egypt, the nation of Amalek traveled far from their home in order to attack the Jews in the desert.  Moses appointed Joshua to lead the battle against Amalek, and with G-d’s help, the Jews won.  Since then, we’ve been engaged in eternal war against Amalek and all they stand for. 
Fast forward nearly a thousand years, to 362 BCE, Persia.  Hadassah, known by her Persian alias, Esther, has just entered Achashveirosh’s palace as queen.  Torn from the arms of her husband, Mordechai, forced into marriage with a wife-killer, Esther is shaken by her fate and future.  What does G-d want of her?  Why is she here?  Years pass without answers.  But when Haman’s plan to wipe out the Jews, ‘man, woman, and child on one day,’ become known, Mordechai tells her, “Perhaps this is why you are here.”  As we know, Esther acted bravely and saved her nation, and through them, us.


One of the distinguishing features of Purim is the absence of G-d’s name from the Megillah.  The scroll tells a story of palace intrigues, the rise and fall of political fortunes, and “The King,” whose name appears again and again, but is never explicitly described.  We eat hamantashen - pocket pastries whose sweet filling is concealed.  Hadassah goes by the name Esther, which means “I will hide.”  We wear masks and take on others’ identities.  Purim is stage-show of the ways that truth plays hide and seek with this world.  It’s a script on the theme of concealment – most of all, G-d’s concealment.   


In this world of concealment, where The King is hidden, it’s hard to maintain our faith-equilibrium when  faced with the Hamans who want to kill us.  Like Esther, we want to understand, “What does all this mean?  Why are we here?  What does G-d want of us?”  But years pass and it’s not always clear.  We want Mordechai to tell us, “This is your moment,” but instead, we feel like we’ve been abandoned to chance.

Then Purim comes, and whispers in our ear, “You know what?  Everything is Divinely decreed.  The good stuff, the bad stuff – it’s all from Him.”  We put down our lists of what He’s done for us and what He’s done to us and we realize, that we have no idea what the view is from Above.  We dig in to that.  We eat the hamantashen with its concealed goodness, hide behind a mask or costume, and lay down our limited rational judgments of ‘good,’/ ‘not good.’  (Still, we swing that gragger to drown out the name of our enemies.)
We accept that even in the face of the inexplicable loss of life in Itamar -- and the pain and questioning it elicits from us - that G--d is by our side, albeit masked.  And the only workable response to that, is to overwhelm our pain with joy, through giving to others, and strengthening the bonds of brotherhood. 
Happy Purim.
In Memory of the Fogel Family of Itamar, Israel.

6 comments:

  1. Wait, what? Mordechai was Esther's husband??
    I always thought he was her cousin or uncle or, maybe, guardian. But husband? I didn't know that! Wow.

    --Anatidae

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  2. Like this post a lot

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  3. Hi Anatidae,
    You are correct, Esther was Mordechai's neice and he raised her after her parents died (her father before she was born, and her mother after her birth.)
    The Talmud understands the Megillah's verse about Esther, "And she was for him [Mordechai] a BAT (daughter)," as "And she was for him a BAYIT, (home)," a Talmudic euphemism for one's wife. This is a widely accepted interpretation.

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  4. Very interesting!

    --Anatidae

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  5. I read an interesting book that describe the gradual disapearance of G-d from Tanach. In Breshis He is all hands on, thru tanach His presence is less visible culminating with His name not even in Megilat Esther. The author posits that G-d is like a parent. In the infancy of a child, the parent must attend to every detail from feeding, clothing, shelter. As the child grows older the parent scolds, instructs but lets the child err and make choices. Eventually all in the hope that the child becomes an adult one day fully responsible and capable to live out the life G-d intended.

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  6. Hi Smoo,
    It's an interesting thesis. I'm curious what book this idea comes from. I can see your point, but I think there's another way of seeing it - more like the lines of communication that should exist in a good relationship. Our sages talk about a time of "Hester Panim" - when G-d hides His face from us [the opposite of what we ask for in Birkat Cohanim -- that G-d should shine His face upon us]. When our relationship with G-d was in a better state, we had open communication. In earlier books of Tanach G-d is more revealed - the story of Esther takes place at the very end of the era of prophecy, right before that channel of communication with G-d closed. Now that we're in exile, communication between us and G-d is murky and sometimes unclear. There are times we don't know what He wants, and times we wonder if He hears us. I don't see this as a sign of maturity on our part, more as a sign of a relationship in need of repair...

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