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/ 12 Adar, 5767
Purim, party and paradox
Rabbi David Aaron
The Book of Esther's ironic Truth
Purim celebrates the salvation of the Jews from the wicked Haman's scheme to exterminate all the Jewish men, women, and children living in the Persian empire in the year 357 B.C.E., which essentially meant all the Jews in the world. On Purim we are obligated to hear the Book of Esther which recounts the Purim story and enjoy a festive meal. We are also required to give charity to the poor, send two food items to a friend, and get so drunk that we do not know the difference between Haman, the villain, and Mordechai, the righteous hero of the story? (This last commandment, I understand, is very rigorously kept in college dorms all year round.)
BEYOND THE EITHER/OR
In Hebrew, the Book of Esther is called Megillas Ester. Megillah, meaning "scroll," is related to gilui, meaning "revelation," while Ester is related to hester, meaning "hiddenness." So, Megillas Ester suggests "the revelation of hiddenness."
The hiddenness revealed on Purim is the hidden omnipresent oneness of G-d. On Purim we celebrate the true meaning of G-d's absolute oneness. And since the meaning and truth of G-d's absolute oneness the ultimate message of Judaism is so completely revealed on Purim, this holiday and its story will be relevant and celebrated even in the Messianic age.
Understanding the profound meaning of G-d's oneness requires thinking beyond either/or but that is not what we are used to.
Once, when I was in a library in Toronto, I came across a reference book in the philosophy section that outlined the position of every major philosopher on every major philosophical issue. It was arranged in such a way that I didn't have to read all their writings to get the final conclusions. For example, in the chapter called "Body vs. Soul" were listed the arguments of the philosophers who say that "Human beings are only body/matter," and the arguments of the philosophers who say, "Human beings are essentially spiritual." In the chapter called "Choice vs. Determinism," were listed the arguments of those who say "History is predetermined; man has no free choice," and of those who say, "Man has absolute free choice."
I thought to myself, "This is such a funny book." Judaism's answers, which were not included in any list, are beyond both sides of the argument neither body nor soul, neither fate nor choice. Judaism's answers are beyond either/or.
To the question, "Well, are we a body or a soul?" Judaism would say, "Yes."
"Free choice or fate?" Again, Judaism would say, "Yes."
But can our dualistic minds grasp this paradigm of "beyond either/or"? Yes, after a few good drinks on Purim.
On Purim, we are commanded to get so drunk we can't tell the difference between the blessed be Mordechai (the leader of the Jews) and cursed be Haman (the evil man who wanted to commit genocide). Some explain that these two Hebrew phrases "blessed Mordechai" and "cursed Haman" have the same numerical value: 502. But how could "cursed Haman" be equal to the "blessed Mordechai"?
It is plainly true that the good and the evil are opposites, certainly not of equal value. But the oneness of G-d that is exalted on Purim transcends the either/or and includes opposites within it.
The Kabbalah teaches that G-d is not just the one and only ruling power and there are no other gods, G-d is absolutely the one and only reality there is nothing but G-d and we exist within G-d. We are souls sparks, aspects and expressions of G-d and we do not exist apart from Him but rather within Him. Our realization of this truth is the evolving story of history whereby we discover how united we are with G-d and each other. This realization of oneness is the ultimate experience of love.
Therefore, when Judaism asserts that G-d is one, it does not mean "one" in the dictionary sense of "the opposite of many." The oneness of G-d is the power of love, which transcends and includes both "one" and "many." It includes opposites in a simple oneness. Although our logical minds cannot understand this paradoxical oneness, we get a taste of it on Purim, because the story of Purim aptly illustrates that even the evil person who denies G-d and rebels against His will ironically serves to reveal G-d's truth and to the evil person's own dismay actually end up bringing blessing to the world.
The oneness of G-d is such that He can create us with free choice, and we can choose to go against His will and yet mysteriously, we cannot oppose His will. Even though we have free choice, any choice we make still remains within the context of G-d's being and the confines of G-d's will. We are free to disobey and do other than G-d's will, but we are not able to undermine His plan.
This is how this ironic truth is revealed in Megillas Ester:
The story begins with the king's party, in celebration of the 70 year anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The prominent Jews of Persia are invited and attend, drinking and carousing at an event where the sacred vessels stolen from the Temple are being used. Fully aware of this conflict of interest, the Jews find it more important to rub elbows with Persia's royalty than to stand loyal to their holy tradition a typical sign of Jewish assimilation throughout history.
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But, as it also has happened throughout Jewish history, the Jews become more hated, the more they try to assimilate, and so, too, here.
As the story continues, we learn that Haman, the king's prime minister, decides to destroy the Jewish people and proceeds to execute his plot. The irony of the story is that everything he does to destroy the Jews ends up destroying him. For example, Haman builds a gallows on which to hang Mordechai and that is the very gallows on which he himself is hanged. Moreover, by threatening the Jews' existence, Haman indirectly initiates a renewal of their commitment to Torah, thus reversing the tide of assimilation always the greatest threat to Jewish survival.
(Now we can understand why the sweet treat of the holiday is called "Haman's ears." That bitter, destructive man turned out to be the source of sweetness and nourishment for Jewish survival. )
Haman's greatest punishment was realizing that his action helped to save the Jewish people. The Talmud teaches that G-d is equally praised in Gehinnom (Hell) by the evil ones there, as He is by the holy ones in Gan Eden (Paradise). In other words, the evil ones also end up serving G-d's plan and revealing His oneness, albeit against their own will and amid a great deal of self-inflicted suffering.
On Purim, we celebrate that everything in the world goes according to G-d's plan whether we see it or not. On Purim, we read the Megillas Ester and celebrate the revelation of G-d's hiddenness within the free choices of humanity. G-d's plan disguises itself and plays out even through the evil people of the world. But, on Purim, we actually see the truth behind the mask. To emulate G-d, the Master of Disguise, we, too dress up in disguises and party over this mysterious and marvelous paradox.
A must read get Rabbi Aaron's latest best seller: Inviting G-d In: Celebrating the Soul-Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days
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Rabbi David Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization with programming in Israel, New York South Florida, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Toronto. He has taught and inspired thousands of Jews who are seeking meaning in their lives and a positive connection to their Jewish roots.
He is the author of the newly released, Inviting G-d In, The Secret Life of G-d, and Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power , Seeing G-d and Love is my religion. (Click on links to purchase books. Sales help fund JWR.) He lives in the old City of Jerusalem with his wife and their seven children.
© 2006, Rabbi David Aaron