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 feast (Megillat Esther 1:4). If so, responded their Rebbe, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), only Shushan’s Jews should have been culpable.
The talmidim at a loss, Rashbi provided them with the answer. The Jews were being punished for having worshipped avoda zara. Rashi explains that this refers to a sin in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. If so, asked the talmidim, why were the Jews ultimately saved? If they were guilty of the grave sin of avoda zara, they should have actually been annihilated.
Rashbi offered a profound answer: Because the Jews did not believe in the avoda zara they were physically bowing to but were forced, Hashem responded in kind – he “made believe” that he intended to decree the Jews’ annihilation even though he did not actually intend it (Megillah 12a).
Many commentaries (Maharsha, for example) ask an obvious question: If the Jews were not truly committed to the avoda zara they were forced to bow to, why did Hashem pretend to decree their annihilation? Though bowing down to avoda zara is never justified, when done so under duress it is not a punishable offense.
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 example in Megillat Esther is Esther herself, who is unable to reveal her true identity in Achashveirosh’s court. At what point do the things we pretend to identify with become the things we truly identify with, and become who we are?
When the Jews acted “as if” they were serving a foreign god and identifying with their host nation, the true G-d acted “as if” He was severing his relationship with them by causing those nations to turn against them. Throughout the ages, when Jews mistakenly came to view themselves as part of the nations we lived amongst, Hashem caused these nations to reject us.
Moment of Truth
After Haman’s decree, the Jews faced a moment of truth and 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 same (Megillat Esther 7:4).
The Jews clarified their true selves and Hashem clarified his true intentions. The Book of Tehillim (121:5) describes G-d as our shadow. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that G-d’s relationship with us reflects ours 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 we wear on Purim remind us that our 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.
These issues are even more relevant and challenging for people living in our contemporary era of global connection. 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 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 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 having an effect on 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 “… in those days, in our time!”