Purim: Looking Beyond the Surface

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Purim holiday cookies, Oznei Haman in Hebrew Colorful noisemaker and Purim Mask

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, in his Sefer Alei Shur, teaches a fascinating idea about the nature of the miracle of Purim. He explains that unlike other miracles, which required an “open revelation” of sorts, the miracle of Purim occurred completely within the laws of nature and was characterized by the trait of tzniut as it was done in a private way, without fanfare.

Rav Wolbe explains that the hidden nature of the Purim miracle actually hints at its greatness. While at the time of the leaving of Egypt, the Jewish people needed an openly revealed miracle in order to teach them Hashem’s mastery of the entire world – including the natural world, at the time of the Purim story, the Jewish people did not require such an overt miracle in order to learn that Hashem is continuously involved in the world and guiding history from behind the scenes.

According to the Maharal (in his sefer, Ohr Chadash, on Megillas Esther), the middah (character trait) of tzniut was also how Mordechai and Esther merited to have the great miracle of Purim occur through, and for, them. The Maharal demonstrates this based on a number of sources most notably focusing on the name Esther itself which means “concealment” or “hiddenness”.  Esther, remarkably, was able to demonstrate tzniut by retaining her privacy and dignity, in what otherwise was a very public role. We see that even when she becomes the queen, she “does not tell her birthplace and her nation.” The Maharal explains that it was particularly appropriate that the redemption of the Jewish people during a time of hester panim (when Hashem’s presence seemed hidden) should occur through a heroine who demonstrated the greatness of concealment, or tzniut.

We too live in a time of concealment, where Hashem’s presence is not clearly revealed to us. The Maharal explains that in order to draw close to Hashem during a time of hester panim, we need to develop this middah of tzniut, which helps us perceive Hashem in our world of hiddenness by teaching us to see beyond the surface. 

Understood in this way, Purim teaches us the importance of developing a deeper, internal focus. It teaches us to look beyond the exterior and superficiality of this world.  It inspires us to become deeper, more tzniut people who can appreciate the depth and hiddenness of Hashem in our world.

If alternatively we choose to related to the world superficially and act without tzniut, according to the Maharal, we will remain completely “physical without the ability to access true wisdom.” This is because true wisdom can only be attained by learning to look beyond the surface when interacting with others and the world.

Of course, this is challenging to do especially in a time where we are bombarded by messages that threaten the development of this middah on a daily basis. We live in a world where we are defined what we “do” more than who we “are,” our “worth” is defined in financial terms, and how we look sometimes seems to make a bigger difference than who we are as a person.

We must work hard to find ways to challenge the status quo and see the depth in the word, others, and our selves. We can combat the urge to be “surface Jews,” who “walk the walk and talk the talk” without really thinking about what we are doing and why we are doing it. We do this by preserving our own depth through acting in a tzniut way and interacting this way with others.

Once we have become more accustomed to perceiving depth in ourselves and others, it will be easier for us to perceive depth in the world around us as well. We will more naturally be able to see Hashem’s involvement in our personal lives. The Maharal teaches us that even during times of hester panim, Hashem is involved in our lives. It is just that we are not always sensitive enough to see Him. Our avodah (spiritual work) in preparing for Purim is to work on developing ourselves so that we will be better able to perceive, recognize, and share with others all of the miracles that are Hashem is doing for us “beyond the surface”.

We can also use the middah of tzniut that we have developed to experience the mitzvos of Purim in a deeper way.

When we read the megillah on Purim, we can look at it with a fresh perspective and realize the “hiddenness” of the chain of miracles that occurred during the time of Purim. “Megillas Esther” literally means “revealing the hidden” because that is what Purim and the megillah do.  Although Hashem’s name is not mentioned at all in the megillah, through looking more deeply at the events recorded within it, it is possible to see the hand of Hashem guiding history. Through reading the megillah, with this perspective we can further train ourselves in the middah of tzniut.

The other mitzvos of Purim, those that are more “other focused”, can also be more deeply experienced by tapping into the attribute of tzniut. We strengthen Jewish unity by giving gifts to the poor, food to our friends, and by celebrating together with festive meals.

The first one, Shalach manos, teaches us to reach out to another person during good times and bad. During times of crisis, it is easy to connect to each other. However, the mitzvah of mishloach manos teaches us to connect to others in times of peace as well. It is easy during challenging times to disregard differences and come together, on Purim we push ourselves to look beyond the surface and find ways of connecting to others when things are going relatively well. The Rambam states in Mishna Torah, that the more people we can do this with, the better, as we increase feelings of friendship with each one that we give.

Matanos L’Evyonim (tzedakah) similarly pushes us to look past the surface and not to get too caught up in how things look superficially. Rav Chiya, in Shabbos 151b, states, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.” In other words, just because you are the one on “top” today (giving tzedakah) does not mean that tomorrow you won’t be the one on the receiving end. The mazal (zodiac) of the month of Adar is dagim (fish).  It is visually represented by two fish drawn in a circle – one on the top and one on the bottom.  This represents that just as in the story of Purim, where circumstances are switched around in one moment, our situations in life can be switched around in a moment. The Rambam writes that it is more important to invest in this mitzvah than shalach manos and seudah since it is through gladdening the heart of the vulnerable that we act similar to G-d.

In addition to the mitzvos of Purim, some of the minhagim (customs) we do on this day emphasize this theme as well.

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in the Purim Primer, writes:

On Purim we radically alter our most fundamental form of outer expression.  We replace our regular clothing with a costume.  In so doing we hope not to exchange one costume for another, but to penetrate beneath the outer layers and discover a hidden essence… Stripped of our usual attire, no longer able to rely on the externalities of clothing to define us, we are free to explore a very personal inner world.  Masquerading has a paradoxical way of allowing us to see who we really are. By putting on a face that is not – and never could be – mine, I am able to look within and ask myself, who then am I?

In addition to costumes helping us perceive ourselves in a deeper way, it helps us better connect to others. As Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald, in Unity Through Diversity, writes:

When one dresses up in a bizarre fashion, we recognize that the costume is only a disguise, and it does not reflect ones’ true inner self.  Similarly, we must understand that despite the external differences among various groups of Klal Yisroel, our true essence is one and the same.  And this awareness allows us to love and embrace our fellow Jews – not only on Purim, but the rest of the year, as well.

In addition to costumes, drinking alcohol (when done properly) can help us to reveal aspects of ourselves that are usually hidden.

According to the Maharal, our current galus (exile) one that is characterized by “emptiness.” Each galus that we find ourselves in teaches us a message through which we can develop and improve ourselves in order to make ourselves worthy of redemption. By observing the culture around us, we are able to identify what we ourselves must work on. Our current galus, Edom, is one of “emptiness,” which we see expressed so clearly all around us as superficiality, consumerism, and celebrity idolatry.  In order, to survive and grow during our current galus, we need to integrate the message of Purim – the middah of tzniut and internality so that we can shift our focus to the depth and spirituality in our relationship with our self, others, and Hashem and create lives filled with substance, depth and meaning.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.