Seeing Beyond The Mask
Looking Beyond The Surface
By Rabbi Yoav Ende
This year, Purim finds us in the midst of a tragic and contentious historic event. The holiday should be celebrated now not because there are no difficulties or woes in the world, but because we must find joy even during such complex times. On this occassion I would like to share my thoughts on the current situation, and try to provide some clarity.
Though it often seems like the revelry of Purim is nothing but superficial fun, the holiday contains multitudes of meaning. One such meaning is the “hidden within the hidden”, a shorthand to a much revered interpretation of Deuteronomy 31:18 by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov – which is to say, sometimes it is not simply that we must seek answers to what we do not yet know but seek further and wonder what it is we have not yet asked.
There is no mention of God in the Book of Esther where the celebration of Purim originates – this is seemingly a fully mortal tale. And so, without guidance from above, we look to understand who is pulling the strings: is Haman puppeteering the lame-duck king Ahasuerus, or does Ahasuerus realize he is targeted by assassins and so sets up Haman as a patsy? Perhaps Mordechai is the one subtly influencing the course of events, or maybe he is the instrument of a divine machination? These queries shine a light onto our own reality – who is actually in control? What do we truly perceive, and what is kept from us? What is our agency and capacity for change, as individuals and as communities?
The first layer of “the hidden” in Rabbi Breslov’s interpretation is the unknown: the realization that something eludes us. But the second layer is that far more tricky concept of the unknown unknown – the thing we do not even realize we do not know and so are unable to know we should look for it. This second layer is what defines Purim of 2022: we are confronted with just how many unknown unknowns surround us, how many unseen elements dictate the course of our lives and the fate of our nations. We strive to find coherence in what seems to us like chaos – what will the world be like in a week, a month? And as we watch the suffering of innocents in the Ukraine, the bravery of its citizens and the cries of its refugees, it is all too easy to give in to helplessness before what appears to be an unfathomable situation.
Despite the countless points of view we see and hear in the news, it seems no clear answers are to be found. I certainly do not intend to give my own political or strategic opinion, but rather to posit all who, like me, seek a path ahead – what is it now that we know with absolute certainty? What is plain to see, understand, and affect? That at least is simple to ascertain: it is the tremendous pain of humanity distressed, of people driven out of hearth and home into the cold snows of wintery Europe and a previously prosperous future denied.
For us here in Israel, we must remember our origins and be ready to answer the call. Open our doors, our hearts and our arms to those who seek shelter and give them what safety and security we may. It is a great privilege to be able to have such agency and capacity, to defend those who need defending and accept the responsibility of care.
In the Book of Esther, Mordechai speaks to Esther in the palace as the Jews of the kingdom are persecuted and says to her, in her lofty position as the king’s consort: “And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” We who find ourselves in similar positions should perhaps all ask ourselves the very same.
Happy Purim – חג פורים שמח