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The Many Faces of Purim

This sermon was originally delivered at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA on March 18, 2016.

As we move into Shabbat Zachor this evening, I wanted to say a little about Purim, and some of how I have come to understand the rather strange and raucous way we celebrate this narrowly averted experience of attempted genocide.  It’s not an immediately intuitive occasion on which to throw a party.

The story of Purim, of course, is a flamboyant, even farcical tale of good and evil.  Its characters on the face of it are total caricatures of human virtue and vice.  Achashverosh is the foolish king who sits on the throne but exercises no true leadership or authority.  Haman – a descendant of Amalek — is the sinister power behind the throne who cleverly executes his genocidal plan until he himself is executed upon the gallows intended for his greatest enemy.  Mordechai is the righteous mean of faith who faces seemingly insurmountable odds in this strange game of fate, and emerges vindicated and avenged.  Esther is the apparently naïve beauty queen who saves her people in a single act of courage and defiance.  

As children, we are captivated by these personae, and we try them on – imagining ourselves as absolutely courageous or cowardly, virtuous or villainous, beautiful or ugly, good or bad.    As adults, hopefully, we learn to laugh at the absurdity of such absolutes – even as we recognize our childlike longing for them.

The tradition of dressing up on Purim allows us to play with both the allure and the absurdity of the absolutes we impose on a world that is insistently and uncomfortably ambiguous.  We “try on” the different characters in the Megillah or in our own culture, perhaps trying on different parts of ourselves.  As my friend and colleague Rabbi Mishael Zion has written, “On Purim we are using clothes against themselves, to deny their power to box us in . . . like the good carnival that it is, Purim makes us wonder if there is an ‘authentic self’ at all, or whether it is all just endless masks upon masks.”

This rather vertiginous question is hinted at by the Hebrew word for clothing itself, begged – the very same three letter root signifies both clothing and betrayal.  Clothing both conceals and reveals our true selves.  Our explicit masquerading on Purim brings into relief the implicit choices we make every day about the aspects of our identity we highlight, hide, or hint at when we get dressed each morning.  It invites us to be aware of the interaction of performance, posturing, exposure, and self-expression in the costumes – or clothes – we wear every day.  And, by inviting us to be playful about our own identities and the identities of those around us, Purim points to a vital yet elusive truth of our humanity:  We are each more than one thing.

Esther herself embodies this truth.  From the moment she is introduced to us, her identity is hard to pin down.  Is her name Esther or Hadassah?  Is she Mordechai’s cousin or daughter?  

Is she Persian or Jewish?  What about her status?  Is she powerless or powerful?  Is she a servant or a queen?  What about her appearance itself?  In one particularly intriguing midrashic twist, Esther’s beauty is linked to the very fluidity of her identity – “Rabbi Elazar taught: To each and every person, Esther appeared as one of his own people, one of his own nation.”  Commenting on this, the commentator Rashi says, “Those who saw Esther would say out loud, ‘She is one of ours.’

Read through this lens, Esther emerges not as a simple beauty queen, but as a complex, multi-dimensional character.  It is through the fullness and fluidity of her identity that her beauty and her humanity shine forth.

We are, all of us, more than one thing.  

We are not only our physical appearance.  

We are not only our gender.  

We are not only our sexuality.  

We are not only our profession.  

We are not only the roles that we fill.  

We are not only our religion, our ethnicity, our race, or our culture.

We are not only our disability, our illness, or our health.  

We are not only our poverty or our wealth.  

This lesson was brought home to me several years ago when our son was seriously ill.  I feared that his illness was all people would see when they saw him.  I am forever indebted to those life-giving individuals who could see that he was more than his illness – and so helped him to see and remember that as well.

We do violence to each other when we see an aspect of another person’s being and treat that one aspect as the totality of who they are.  When we make it define them.  This essential act of dehumanization is at the heart of so many forms of prejudice and systems of oppression.  In the context of the Purim story, it is what makes possible Haman’s genocidal plan.  Only a group of people who are seen as less than fully human can be targeted for extermination.     

When we play with our identities on Purim, we implicitly acknowledge that we are – all of us – more than one thing.  In the process, we play not only with those parts of ourselves that we’re proud of – but also with the parts of ourselves we’d rather hide.  We acknowledge our shadow sides because we know that they are more dangerous when unacknowledged. We are enjoined to lose track of the difference between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman because we understand that the moment we become so enamored with our own virtue that we think we are nothing like Amalek, we have become like Amalek.

When we confuse part of a person’s identity or experience for the totally of who they are, we diminish the fullness and complexity of their humanity.  But I want to suggest something more than that.  It is also a form of idolatry.

While idolatry takes many forms in Jewish tradition, one classical definition of idolatry is mistaking a part of the divine unity for the whole.  In their book on Idolatry, Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit have pointed out that this is why “in various kabbalistic traditions, the symbols of divine unity are organic symbols . . . primordial man, or a tree, whose various aspects are connected with one another . . . Idolatry in the context of the image of organic unity is the worship of an aspect – the separation of a part from its unity and the worship of that separated part.”

The menorah that was placed in the mishkan in last week’s parsha is precisely such an image of organic unity, a flowering almond tree that we’re told had to be fashioned from one piece of gold.

The menorah shines a light on this same truth.  Never mistake a part for the whole.

God is one and we who are created in God’s image are also one.  When we mistake a part of God for the whole – that is idolatry.  When we take one aspect of a human being, created in the divine image, and mistake it for the whole — that too is idolatry.  When we flatten ourselves or each other in this way, we diminish our humanity, and we diminish the One in whose image we are made.

Our teacher Art Green, the founder of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, shares a related teaching from his teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? You might think…that it is because God has no image, and any image of God is therefore a distortion… ‘No,’ [Heschel] said, ‘it is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living breathing human being and try to create God’s image out of it — that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.  You can’t make the image of God, you can only be the image of God.”

God’s name is absent from Megillat Esther.  But God’s image is very much present during our Purim celebrations – in the multiplicity of faces all around us, both hiding and longing to be seen.

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