Purim 5776 D’var Torah

Note: This is for a very different audience than most of what I post here. If you follow me, you probably won’t have any idea what I’m talking about — sorry!

The megillah identifies its main characters, Esther, Mordechai, Haman, and Achashverosh — but they undergo opposite identification processes throughout the story.

For some reason we start the megillah with Achashverosh, and it’s critical at the very outset to know that his mission is to be Molech, to assert his identity and rulership. This mission is eventually successful, culminating in his dethroning of his appointed head of staff, followed by an assertion of direct power in the form of taxing the people. Similarly, Haman is so egocentric that he wagers his title and his position —one to which everyone must accede, even a lowly-seeming Jew named Mordechai. He fails while trying to assert himself and his identity, brought down by a plan intended to finally force his nemesis to honor him; he is obviously humiliated by needing to honor this lowly Jew instead.

That Jew, Mordechai, is identified only by his tribe and the fact that he was sent away when the Jews were exiled. In Shoshanas Yaakov, he is identified even more plainly, only as “HaYehudi.” He seemed so unimportant that, as the Megillah states, it would be an embarrassment for Haman to stoop to the level of acting against him directly! (It is only via our tradition that we know he was a member of the Sanhedrin, already an important leader of the Jews.)

And Esther — she was not only nearly anonymous at first, with no parents and only a seemingly lowly uncle, but she then hides her identity further. She is demure through most of the Megillah, to the point that after she acts, she cannot simply tell the King what is wrong, but must act out an extended charade to get to the point. But in the end, we note that the entire Jewish people act on her behalf — she is Esther Ba’adi, Esther for us!

The difference here is between those who act to reinforce their own identities, and those for whom identity is forced upon them. Our identity is our core component. Our very da’as is dependent on it — da’as tov ve’rah, da’as our religion, da’as our ability to relate to others. On Purim, we attempt to remove that Da’as — we drink to erase identity, to erase thought, to erase deliberation.

Esther, the most anonymous member of our story, is the one who eventually takes charge, thus seizing a place for herself as… nothing. Her position is unchanged, still in thrall to the King, having only further surrendered her identity, becoming a Queen instead of a wife. Her legacy, though, is a holiday enshrining her sacrifice. She becomes the focus, the hero.

How? Only by initially being willing to hide her identity can she take a place as Queen. At that point, Esther could easily have built an identity as Queen, the apex of power for a woman in her day, instead of hiding who she was. She could have decided for herself the reason Hashem placed her there— ensuring that she would later be unable to act for the Jews when needed. Instead, when she acts, it is by asserting her identity as a Jew, the least specific identifier available. As the gemara in Megillah clarifies, that is the point of her actions — she doesn’t pre-specify a plan, or what it will mean, what will happen to her. She simply waits to see what part of her almost erased identity is necessary for her to act.

On Purim, we need to step back from the elaborate identities we construct for ourselves.

Identity as a constraint

Identity constrains us, makes us need to justify ourselves and act according to what is expected. Paul Graham uses this to argue against identifying with a specific programming language, religion, or political party. (I’d only endorse avoiding two of those.)

Why? “People can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.” He correctly notes that “you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants.”

Most of us can’t dispassionately evaluate the relative merits of the Chareidi and Dati communities, though we know we should admit that “Yisroel Kedoshim Heim.” Instead, if “our” group has done something wrong, or is non-ideal in some aspect of their behavior, we feel the instinctive need to justify “ourselves.” Worse, we uncritically accept the norms of a group, even ones that are detrimental. We allow the positive aspects of the identity drown out the fact that other groups, other Jews, have valuable contributions.

Not all identity is bad, of course. Self-abnegation and nullification of who we are is not a Jewish path; we find meaning and Kedusha through engagement with the world, not withdrawal. Obviously, self-identifying as someone who Davens 3 times a day, or as someone who learns Shabbos afternoon, is wonderful if it helps us maintain the habit. Despite that, even these purely positive traits are harmful when we use this identity to denigrate others, or view them as inferior. We can use the positive, and still appreciate that it doesn’t need to help us exclude others.

Our Avodah on Purim is to allow us to reconstruct who we are, to replace our narrow constructed identities with more universal ones that allow us to unify, to capitalize on opportunities. We should not let identities get in our way of participating in the Revach v’Hatzalah that will be provided for our people. At the very least, our role can be to support others, just like the Jews that have so little identity that they are mentioned in the Megillah only as fasting in support of Esther (and eventually, as looting the homes of anti-semites who attack.) Instead of our solidly constructed, narrow towers of identity, we have a chance to redefine ourselves humbly. If we are successful, who can know what out fate will bring? We may discover that, by allowing ourselves to be more accepting and more open to opportunity, we gain the ability to capitalize on an “Eis C’Zos, when Hashem provides a moment of golden opportunity.

The practical take-away of this message, however, goes beyond our personal Avodah while drunk on Purim. Which Jews were targeted by Haman? “M’naar v’ad Zakein, Taf v’nashim.” Haman viewed us, correctly, as a nation that was “M’fuzar u’Meforad Bein Ha’Amim” split into ever smaller categories. Even our Avodas Hashem is segmented! We are Chassidim or Misnagdim, Ashenazim or Sefardim. We are people who daven at a Teen Minyan, a Young Marrieds Minyan, a Hashkama Minyan, a Main Minyan, or otherwise.

On Purim, however, we are told explicitly by the Gemara that the Pirsumei Nisa should be accomplish with many Jews. The Mishna Berura poskins l’halacha that we need to find a Megilla reading that’s large, containing many Jews. “B’rov Am Hadras Melech” — all together, undivided by our identities. We leave this unified public reading to spend the day delivering gifts, to encourage bonds of friendship, and to provide for our nation’s poor, allowing them to join in the celebration. Only then can we drink, to further unify our nation, and to erase that which separates us.

Unity, one Gemara notes, has historically protected Jews even when they were idol worshippers. On the day identified as “like Purim,” we open by asking permission to pray with those that are sinful, to exclude no-one. This diversity we are told to display is clearly a way to oppose narrow identities, to require inclusivity. The Megillah is clear on this point as well; Purim is a time when K’lal Yisroel comes together to allow individuals to accomplish miracles, hidden though they may be. Unity allowed us to accept the Torah originally, and our continued re-acceptance on Purim is strengthened, not weakened, by inclusivity.

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