Israel has long been the victim of its own self justification. Sadly, both Israel’s adversaries and advocates relegate themselves to lowest-common-denominator partisan tactics that undermine the very complexities that once motivated them to take an active interest in Israel. Fortunately though, once a year we are given an opportunity to lose ourselves in sobering intoxication, and find ourselves through unadulterated introspection.
The biblical story of Mordecai and Queen Esther introduces chillingly contemporary themes. Foreign as the ancient Persian Empire may be to us, the Book of Esther’s inquisitive narrative, which questions the role and identity of each of the major players, reads like a script from a reality TV show. Is Mordecai a representative of the House of Judah or are his origins in the tribe of Benjamin? Is Esther a Jewish victim who falls prey to the royal excesses of the time, or the proud queen of the known world? Haman’s status and position change drastically on more than one occasion, whereas King Ahashverosh’s essential disposition and inherent alliegiences remain consistently undefined. In those days as today, societal norms and personal identity are highly interactive. And the combination between the two serves to confound far more than it clarifies.
Surprisingly and uncharacteristically, traditional Judaism does not celebrate the lives and lessons that emerge from the Book of Esther. We tell their story, but their praises remain unsung. Mordecai confronted Esther. He insisted that she decisively identify herself and do all in her power to prevent the annihilation of the Jewish people, “for who knows if for a time such as this you have attained royalty” (Book of Esther, 4:14). Esther meets the challenge boldly, comes out of the closet as a Jewess, puts her life on the line, and saves her people. Yet despite the glaring difference between the good guys and the bad, the Purim holiday is designed to overlook noble heroism and baffle the reader with puzzling ambiguity.
The Talmud teaches: “a person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between the curse of Haman and the blessing of Mordecai” (Tractate Megilla, 7B). As opposed to other holidays, the goal of Purim is not to distinguish between right and wrong but rather to be confused by the two polar opposites. Instead of admiring those who were bold enough to embrace their heritage and national identity, we are called to remain ambivalent towards their merits. To celebrate Purim is to be indecisive in the way we view the world, and the way we see ourselves.
Sincere self examination is, of course, a tall order for anyone. For Israel’s friends and foes it would seem to be virtually impossible. The political discourse that surrounds and envelops Israel is potently charged, and all those who are even nominally engaged are forced to take sides. Dialogue swiftly deteriorates into knee-jerk rhetoric. Debate outcomes are measured by the quantity of constituents for a particular argument instead of the quality of the case. But when dealing with Israel, do simplistic monolithic party lines truly exist? And if they do, should they?
As with the Talmudic directive that instructs us to reach a state of drunkenness, the Purim practice of dressing in costume is similarly revealing. To wear a mask on Purim is to question who you are. Once we recognize that we are capable of misleading others about our identity we begin to wonder if we haven’t been fooling ourselves all along.
What masks are we wearing? Have we chosen the Israel-is-flawless position or the Israel-is-lawless approach? Do we genuinely question the issues at hand, or do we blindly recommend or condemn a news report or Op-Ed on the basis of our emotional attachment towards the author? Is Israel the subject of honest debate or the object we use to advance a personal agenda?
Purim is a breath of fresh air. It’s a chance for us to challenge who we are and what we believe in. Only by being brave enough to unmask our preconceived notions of good and bad, right and wrong, left and right, can we boldly face the very uncertainty that we fear. By pursuing not a glorious outcome but a painstaking and emotionally taxing soul searching process, we can shed the Israel masks that we once thought might protect us from those we wished to fool – including ourselves.
Maybe this year, at “a time such as this”, when we remove our Purim masks following the holiday we will succeed in removing our Israel masks as well. Those who do will doubtlessly learn volumes about themselves in the process. If there are enough of us, the rest of the world will doubtlessly learn volumes about Israel.