By Jacob Cytryn, Director
(Thanks to Natan Bateman and Etan Bednarsh for sharing different divrei Torah that inform much of what I discuss below.)
We grapple with two central questions when we step back from the levity and joy of Purim and assess the holiday for its textual meaning and resonance in our lives.
First: Where is God? Megillat Ester (literally: The Scroll of Esther) famously does not contain the name of God, one of two Biblical books in which God plays no perceivable role.
Second: What is the message we are to take from the story? What is the holiday really about? Are we reading a satirical farce, mocking the Persian deities of Marduk (hence: Mordechai) and Ishtar (Esther)? A relatively late addition to the now familiar genre based on the Egyptian Pharoah who sought to destroy the Jews only to be vanquished?
The Book of Esther’s ten chapters provide us with a rich story with more plot twists than I can remember from year to year. It is the story of a Jewish community in the diaspora, ostensibly during the period of the Second Temple, yet with no explicit discussion of the rituals of the Temple or Jewish religion whatsoever. The Jewish characters – Mordechai and Esther – are at great distance, physically and spiritually, from their history, heritage, and from other members of their community.
The narrative hinges on the ostensible slight of Mordechai to the king’s Grand Vizier, Haman: Mordechai famously refuses to bow down to Haman. This slight, however, is not sufficiently explained by the narrative itself. Were individuals meant to bow down to Haman as if he were a god? This surely would be religiously problematic for Mordechai, yet it may well have been problematic for others in Shushan, Jewish and not – we hear nothing of their disobedience. Is it possible that Mordechai’s lack of deference to Haman was more of a personal insult than a conscientious statement of devotion to God? If so, the entire rest of the story – Haman’s hurt, his plan to kill the Jews, Esther’s intervention, the difficult to understand military victory of the Jews in the wake of Haman’s defeat – appears almost tragicomic, the result of a single, all too familiar misunderstanding.
A central phrase of our celebration of Purim, drawn from the 9th chapter of Esther, is ונהפוך הוא, v’nahafoch hu – which might best be literally translated as “and the tables were turned,” describing the miraculous shift of the Jewish community’s standing from near-victims to a powerful community from which others cowered. We read “v’nahafoch hu” into everything, the childhood favorite of “opposite day” writ large. Just as the Purim story speaks of turning days of mourning into days of feasts and joy, we exult in frivolity, silliness, adopting new personalities through costumes and masks, sharing jokes about Torah, Judaism, and our community.
“V’nahafoch hu” has great resonance once we read it back into our central questions. Purim is a day when we embrace our closeness to God – exactly one month before Passover – instead of the distance that Mordechai and Esther experienced. Purim is the day when we acknowledge the narrow pitfalls of life, when the small mistakes of mere mortals can have far-reaching consequences and when our very definitions of hero and villain may hinge on moments that, at the time, feel so minor as to be irrelevant.
“V’nahafoch hu” is also one of the primary lenses through which we view our experiences at camp every summer. A summer at Ramah is a conscious flipping of our experiences throughout the year – we go from being a small Jewish minority to an overwhelming Jewish majority; we empower young people to play grown-up roles in an engaged Jewish community; we shift from lives in which our Judaism is defined by specific places and experiences to living for an entire session in an environment wholly infused by Jewish living.
Purim, then, is a small taste of a summer at Ramah – enjoy!
Chag Purim Sameach.