Although Purim is mostly known for its party vibe, and is often thought of as the Jewish equivalent of Mardi Gras or Halloween, there is much more to it than meets the eye. In that sense, its boisterous nature itself is the costume it wears, masquerading its mysterious inner nature.
From the unusual omission of the name of G-d in its entire ancient Megillah text, to the actual name of Esther, who while being one of the most well know heroines of our tradition, carries a name that is tied to the mystical world of Hiddenness, this holiday is as beguiling as it gets. The Esther that we think we know is really Hestair, the unknowable.
A holiday where truth is masked is actually one that dares us to probe its deepest secrets.
The Purim Mitzvah to be a bit tipsy, so that one “doesn’t know how to differentiate between Mordechai and Haman,” between good and evil, is really an invitation to stop clinging so tightly to the things that we feel sure of. Behind the safety of the mask one can feel free to imagine what it might feel like to be deployed differently in the world.
A Purim tale from the Talmud conceals a similar depth. The surreal story of a drunken Rabah killing his colleague Rav Zayrah at a Purim feast, and then begging for mercy is able to bring him back to life, is troubling on many levels, especially for those who struggle with substance abuse and alcohol addiction. The Rebbe who seems to re-read this story as metaphor, encourages us to find ourselves existentially in it as well. In analyzing this story, he explores the ways in which one who is grounded in a strong spiritual practice has earned the right to occasionally take a walk on the wild side. In those instances, license is granted to venture out to the mental precipice, and peer out over the edge of an outdated awareness. Only there can one look beyond fear and catch a glimpse of new horizons that would spell the death of one way of seeing things. This emptying out of much needed psychic space, is the key to entertaining the possibility of new and healthier ways of being in the world.
Sometimes, ironically, it’s not even the gaining of new perspectives that is the most refreshing. In fact it could be the opposite. It’s the discovery of an essential quality of self, one that runs deeper than the most well thought out perspective. This absence of coherence itself opens us up to the Purim Mystique.
When we arrive in the unknown land of “Lo Yada,” the magical place where it’s sometimes OK to say “I don’t know,” we are moving in the shadows of that mystery.
While the mask of Purim provides the cover for the safe exploration of new identity, the soul of this holiday is expressed even more in the ways that we learn to be ok with the areas where we have not yet established a firm identity at all.
On Purim we are given the permission – “leevsumay” – to be intoxicated, to drink from our emptiness, and let ourselves float in our groundlessness. On Purim we are taught that we are under no halachik obligation to G-d to be sure of everything at all times.
This Purim mystery, unmasked, reveals the ultimate “Ve Ne Hapachu” – a spiritual teaching that surfaces in a “backwardness” where the answer is in the question and not vice versa.
Perhaps this is why we are taught that it was only on Purim that the Jewish people finally internalized the Torah that they were given at Sinai. G-d might have been waiting to see if they were still with him even when he didn’t seem to be with them anymore. The existential question then that we get to ask on Purim is how much G-d do we still carry in us when we no longer feel carried by G-d. Seen this way, the central question of Purim becomes a broader universal question of life. Whether it comes to our faith, our jobs, our families, our marriages, or our friendships, we need to ask ourselves if we are “in” even when we are not “in-spired”?
The ability to remain invested in the big areas of our life despite often having more questions than answers, to be ok when we experience our “Lo Yadah” moments and we just simply don’t know, means we have truly accepted our life. We have finally, fully received the Torahs that have been given to us.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker is the founder of Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore.