Purim: Hide & Seek

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Much about Purim is shrouded in mystery. Consider that:

  1. The very phrase Megillat Esther has been taken to mean the revelation of the hidden.
  2. The Talmud describes the source of Esther in the Torah as being “And I will hide my face from you” (Chullin 139)
  3. Hashem’s name is not explicit in the Megillah (one of the two Tanach books that are absent his name – can you guess the other?)
  4. We are unfamiliar with most characters of the Megillah (hega, hatach, bigtan, charvonah)
  5. The gemara is not sure of Esther’s real name (Megillah 13a)
  6. The prophet Daniel lurks behind the scenes, but we are not sure if he is Hatach, Memuchan or Charvonah (depending upon your midrashic source)
  7. The gemara acknowledges that we simply do not understand certain words.
  8. Even Mordechai’s lineage is unclear (Is he from Yehuda or not? – Megillah 12b, 13a)

and we begin to understand that after all these years, Purim still has an elusive quality.

In mistaken celebration of the Jews’ demise, Achashveirosh dons the Kohen Gadol’s (High Priest) clothing, seeking to place the ultimate exclamation point to his title of “King of the World”.

As we approach our unique holiday of costumes and masks, let’s study the purpose of these mainly mystical and yet real material Kohen Gadol clothes; for upon reflection an obvious and significant tension emerges.

In Torahspeak, the garments serve l’kavod u’litafares (Shemos, 28:2), to bring the Kohen Gadol grandeur and glory. Think Sepharadi Chacham bedecked in a purple turban and a deep royal Technicolor velvet robe. Thus, the clothing invests the individual with an image and sense of royalty. In stark contrast, but one verse later, these same clothes are described as functioningl’kadsho l’kahano (Shemos, 28:3)– to serve and minister, evoking images of the waiter (who even after donning a tux is still a waiter).

So who is the Kohen, King or Waiter?

The answer is hidden. I do not mean unknowable; rather the intuitive solution can be found by probing the quality of hiddenness. Externally, the kohen is adorned in royal style befitting the persona of a Divine servant. In the pithy precise lexicon of Chazal: eved melech, melech. – the servant of the King is like the King. In that sense, the kohen is royal.

Yet, he functions primarily as a servant of God – an exalted and daunting task that when considered appropriately, should strike fear and humility in the hearts and minds of man.

A kohen dare not be taken in by the artifice of his royal uniform. In other words, the kohen must pierce his veil, reminding himself that he is not his clothing. Contemplating the uniform’s hidden message will humble the reflective Divine servant while ignoring it will surely intoxicate the superficial one.

Achashveiroh, the Talmud teaches, wears the High Priest’s tiferes component – he is fixated upon external royalty. Achashveirosh and his world are not very hidden; he is as shallow as his clothing and as transparent as his ego. Smart? Probably – but his intellect is blind to depth. Caught up in his self importance, Achashveirosh simply can not penetrate the mask, the superficial reality that is his world. I know many people that have a similar problem.

In a classic analysis, the Talmud (Megillah 13a-b) links Esther’s prophetic ascendancy with her tznius, her remarkable ability to not reveal her origins, even as Achashveirosh leverages great pressure. To unnerve her, Achashveirosh reconvenes the maidens to choose a new queen. Esther still does not budge. From whence flows her incredible strength? She was of course the spiritual heiress of Rachel and Shaul – both of whom display incredible modesty.

How stunning is the contrast between the Esther’s royalty, one that flows from recognition of her inner royalty, and Achashveirosh’s external kingship. Note that throughout the Megillah, she is Esther HaMalka (her essence and then her royalty) and he is Hamelech Achashveirosh (his title and then his essence).

Ironically and appropriately, shallow king Achashveirosh submits his will to the real royalty that is Esther. Esther then becomes the architect of Purim and the major advocate for the Megillah’s successful incorporation into Tanach. Ultimately, it is her spirit that defines the essence of Purim.

It all comes together. To get something out of Purim (many don’t get much), we must access the hidden. We wear masks to penetrate them and for all of its attendant political incorrectness, we get drunk (I speak not of the contemporary reality which for very good reason advocates the Rambam’s approach) because nichnas yayin yatza sod, i.e. wine as a tool can open us up. We must penetrate the veil of our own lives, seek to strip away our external reality and gain access to our sublime neshamas.

A Freilichen Purim, Asher Brander

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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