Purim, the holiday of disguises, merriment, and debauchery is such an important holiday that the sources (Midrash Proverbs 9:2) teach that it will be the only holy day to be celebrated in the world to come. Despite the cognitive dissonance I feel this year of unabashed celebration amidst the serious crises facing us today, I have come to see this as an essential ritual for maintaining hope in the face of adversity.
It is strange the book read on Purim, Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther) contains no reference to God by name, and yet represents the most “sacred” of days to be carried over into the world to come. Singular among the books of the Bible, the Book of Esther masterfully delivers the combined explosive energies of laughter, randomness, sexuality and violence, but it never delivers God’s name. What then is so holy about this godless celebration of intoxication, frivolity and irreverence?
On the one hand, the meaning of Purim is to be found precisely in the idea of concealment, and particularly of God’s deep concealment. The Hebrew root of Esther’s name, s-t-r means “hidden” and her identity remains secret in the story, until it serves the important purpose of her standing up to the violence of Haman. When we come to celebrate, we too hide our identities as we dress in costumes and mask our faces.
On the other hand, the Hebrew root of the word megillah (scroll) is g-l-h which means to reveal. Purim, then, is about searching below the surface—the invitation to pierce through randomness, vulgarity, and violence in order to uncover meaning and God’s Presence. The play back and forth between these ideas is constant in the text. Vashti refuses to reveal her beauty to the King’s feasting guests; Esther’s Jewish identity is hidden from the King; Haman hides his true plan for the Jews; King Achashverosh is in the dark about the plot to kill the Jews; and finally, the character of God is hidden in the text.
By the middle of the story that which was hidden in the dark come to the light and, the “holy” message is revealed. The pivot revolves around Esther’s reluctance to go to the King uninvited, and Mordechai’s sober message to her: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace…Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (4:13,10)
It is this message that propels Esther to stand up to Haman by going to the King to stop the impending murder of the Jews. The revelations fall like dominos: Mordecai is paraded in royal garb, thereby revealing that he is honored by the King; Haman’s wife Zeresh reveals that her husband will be defeated; Esther reveals her identity; the sackcloth and ashes worn by Mordecai are replaced to reveal happiness and honor, fasting turns into feasting.
God as a character remains hidden in the text, but the godly acts of defiance to save the people are what we remember and celebrate on Purim.
The essential psychological principle of Purim is known as hafichut – the reversibility of our world. We dress in costumes that often reveal our shadow side or a more playful one; we are to drink ad d’lo yada – until we cannot distinguish between the goodness of Mordecai and the evil of Haman; and most profoundly, we confront the real possibility that divine redemption remains hidden from us, and we humans must reveal the divine within us to transform the world.
Purim is an opportunity celebrate the potential for transformation. Without Esther’s courage and commitment, there could be no light and joy with which the story concludes. Without the hiddenness of God, humanity would not understand that we are critical to the transformation of the world from what it is into what it could be. This year, let Purim celebrate the miracle of human self-redemption: let us continue to march in the streets, hold our elected officials accountable, speak truth to power even when it might pose a risk to our comfort. Let us continue to take seriously the charge we bear to help those in need. Perhaps it is for this moment we have the power that we do.