Purim: The Holiday When God Hid Himself or the Holiday When We Hid God?

Most children attending a yeshiva day school know that one unique feature of Megillat Esther is that the name of God is missing.  They can recite the question that has been posed to them year after year – Why is God hiding in the story of the Megilla?  The answer, they’ll probably tell you, is that the story of Purim is a story when the very existence of the Jewish people was being threatened, but God worked behind the scenes to ensure the demise of Haman and his band of wicked anti-Semites.  The takeaway message from the story, then, is that even if God is not performing explicit miracles or speaking through prophecy, He is still involved and can still shape events to protect us when necessary.   Perhaps, however, when we ask where God is in the Megilla, the question should not necessarily be where has God been hiding; but rather, where have we hidden God?

On the surface, the battle of Purim is a battle between two nations.  Haman wanted to destroy the Jews because Mordechai was Jewish and didn’t bow to Haman.  However, there is no explicit mention in the Megilla of the fact that Mordechai believed in a different God.  Haman refers to the Jews as a scattered and separate nation, a state within a state, a nation with strange mosaic customs and different laws.  However, there is no explicit reference to Judaism as a different religion.

At the same time, our Sages highlight the religious aspect of the story.  They assert that when the Megilla refers to the “melech,” or the “king,” this phrase has a double entendre and also refers to God.  They say that Achashverosh threw a party because he believed that the Jews were never going to return to Jerusalem and that God had forsaken them so he took the vessels of the Temple and used them. Additionally, they state that Mordechai didn’t bow down to Haman because the latter had an idol affixed to his heart and therefore, bowing down was an act of idolatry.

In fact, there are hints in the text of the Megilla that seem to indicate that a religious battle was taking place.  When Mordechai refused to bow to Haman, the Megilla states lo yichra v’lo yishtachaveh, that Mordechai would neither kneel nor bow.  But what was the problem with this?  Other great Jewish leaders in Tanach bowed out of respect to non-Jewish rulers.  Why couldn’t Mordechai?  Daat Mikra explains that the term lo yichra v’lo yishtachavehis used only in connection with bowing before God.  Therefore, even though on the surface Haman wanted the people to bow out of respect to him, perhaps he assumed himself to be a god and may have had an idol affixed to his heart.  Seen in that light, we understand that this wasn’t simply a national battle.  It was a religious battle.  Moreover, at the end of the Megilla, we read about how rabim mai’amei ha’aretz mityahadim, how many of the locals were “mityahadim.” This could be read to mean that they affiliated themselves with the Jewish cause, or it could mean that they actually converted to Judaism, which is a religious act!  On the surface, Megillat Esther describes a battle between two nations.  But just beneath the surface, there seems to be a religious dimension as well.

If this thesis is correct, then why is the religious aspect of the story hidden?  Perhaps it is not simply God who hid Himself at this time, but maybe we hid God culturally, which ultimately may have led to hiding God religiously, until Mordechai had enough.  Mordechai is not a Jewish name and Esther is not a Jewish name.  The name Mordechai is derived from the Babylonian god Marduk and the name Esther is derived from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Were they trying to hide their Jewish identities?  When Esther was selected to participate in the beauty pageant to determine who would be queen, Mordechai told her not to disclose her Jewish identity.  Why did he do that?  Maybe this was life in exile with Jews practicing religion but practicing it in secret, hiding God’s name, as it were.  Mordechai and Esther lived a double life.  They thought that they could have it all, appearing like a Persian in public and being a secret Jew, but there was a price to pay. Eventually, you cannot hide from your Jewishness.  Eventually, Mordechai realized that it’s not simply an issue of cultural assimilation, but it’s an issue of religious assimilation.  Indeed, the Midrash tells us about how all the Jews went to Achashverosh’s party and ate forbidden food, but Mordechai stayed away because he understood what was happening.  Once Haman became second in command then Mordechai understood all too well how dangerous this man was – not just culturally, but religiously as well, fashioning himself as a god.  Eventually, Mordechai realized that he couldn’t be like everyone else and he couldn’t bow like everyone else and he explained why to them – ki hu Yehudi– because he was Jewish.  Eventually, circumstances dictated that Esther couldn’t hide her identity from the king and she needed to disclose her identity to save her people.

Megillat Esther tells a story not only of how God hid Himself, but how we hid God, how we weren’t proud of who we were until Mordechai’s moment of truth and then Esther’s moment of truth.  Megillat Esther tells us that religion is not only a private affair.  It is what we must broadcast to the world.  Perhaps one of the reasons to drink wine on Purim is so that we are able to express ourselves without any inhibitions.  Nichnas yayin yatza sod– when we drink a bit then secrets come out and we are unafraid to express who we are and that for which we stand.

Thank God, we live in a world where we are unafraid to practice our Judaism.  We are blessed with the free exercise of religion.  But sometimes we are afraid.  Sometimes we find ourselves conflicted when Torah values seem to clash with our own personal sensibilities and sometimes we may be inclined to become embarrassed of Torah values.  We may go through the motions of adhering to halacha, but we feel quietly embarrassed because halachic values seem primitive and archaic and are not consistent with the ethos of 2019.  I am reminded of something Rav Soloveitchik once said in a lecture. “[W]e must not yield – I mean emotionally, it is very important – we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm – usually it is a transient and passing charm – of modern political and ideological sevarot[ideals].  I say not only not to compromise – certainly not to compromise – but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex.  The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend, or with the secular, modern philosophy.  …  There is no need for apology – we should have pride in our mesorah, in our heritage. And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends. And one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.”

Let us embrace the holiday of Purim as a holiday that reminds us why Jewish openness and Jewish pride are so important.  When we celebrate this beautiful holiday, let us celebrate our gift that God gave us, the gift to be His ambassador in the world spreading His wisdom to all.  That is something not to hide.  That is something to share with pride.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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