A Special Purim Oasis

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 23, 2024 / 14 Adar Sheni 5784

Summary: Below is a message I delivered on Friday night, which examines how the Purim story addresses themes that touch directly on our American Jewish experience during this period of rising antisemitism. I want to thank the many congregants who have shared their personal struggles during this time of heightened Jew hatred. Your stories have touched me. This is my attempt to portray one facet of what we collectively are dealing with.

Reading Time: Seven minutes

I want to discuss friendship, the hiddenness that arises from antisemitism, and how joy is both the corrective and outcome that occurs when we step out of the places where we have been hiding.

My best friend in elementary school was AJ; he was also my next door neighbor, yet I haven’t spoken to him in years. Most of us have experienced how some friendships drift apart. In fact, many of our friendships, and certainly of our acquaintances, are more like fellow travelers. We accompany one another over a stretch of life before happenstance and our own evolution as people send us in different directions.

But of all the people who have drifted in and out of my life, as well as the precious ones with whom I share an indelible bond, AJ is one of the most problematic. I was a small-for-my- age Jewish kid, and AJ, well, he was fascinated by Hitler, WWII and military strategy. He studied it, rather assiduously for an elementary school kid, and would often tell me about the different strategies Hitler could have engaged in to have achieved his total victory.

To this day, I don’t know if AJ harbored a peculiar form of antisemitism, or if his fascination represented nothing more than the rabbit hole of childhood interests that all kids get sucked into, until that early passion exhausts itself as we move on to something else. What can be said with certainty is that his insistence on discussing this with me always made me feel uneasy in some inchoate manner. Today we might use words like micro-aggressions to describe what he was doing—invalidating and demeaning my Jewish identity through these small acts, and without his awareness or conscious intent.

Kids can sense when an interaction doesn’t feel right, but they don’t always have the language, self-awareness, or self-possession to understand and respond to what is wrong in an interaction. Figuring out how to stand up for myself as one of the smallest kids in my grade was a work in progress. That definitely describes my experience with AJ; as a consequence, I never could express the fullness of my Jewish identity around AJ, even though he knew I was Jewish. This part of me had to remain relatively hidden.

This notion of hiddenness plays a major role in Megillat Esther that lays at the heart of Purim. It is often referred to as hester panim, meaning the “hidden face of God,” who is the glaringly absent main character in the story of Purim. Yet our heroine herself, Esther, carries this same notion of hiddenness, not only in her name, which is a cognate of hiddenness, but also in her personal identity.

Her cousin Mordecai instructs her not to reveal her identity as a Jew to King Ahasvuerus. It is crucial for us to note that she consents to this subterfuge with no protest–except that the sort of hiddenness and self-renunciation in which Esther engages isn’t really subterfuge. It is an ancient form of invisibility that Jews have often felt forced to utilize to survive. It is so deeply embedded and understood by Esther that of course she doesn’t question Mordecai’s advice, for it is as patently clear to her as it is to him. She must nestle a crucial part of herself in the shadows.

This self-abnegation is born of existential dread that who we are isn’t acceptable to others. This sort of shame-of-being is hardly unique to Jewish people; a great many individuals struggle with developing a healthy sense of self-worth that is intrinsic and not dependent on our achievements. For too many people, self-worth is a fragile attainment, something to be won and earned by what we do; the moment we stop this doing, the dread returns.

In a certain sense, one part of this dread is the psychological manifestation of a lack of trust in God. Given the dark history of Jewish treatment at the hand of non-Jews, we ought to be extremely compassionate with ourselves and other Jews when it arises. There has been something deeply pragmatic in Jewish hiddenness; indeed, until the rise of the state of Israel, our invisibility has been one of our most utilized survival tools. It has been argued by some historians that the rise in American Jewish willingness to be visible arose in lock-step with the birth and success of Israel, one of whose main goals was the creation of the Yehudi HeChadash, the new Jew who was unabashedly proud and visible. Indeed, that was supposed to be one of the goals and outcomes of Zionism. It was infectious, as American diaspora Jews began to act in the public square more boldly than in earlier times.

As antisemitism returns to the American scene with a sort of vigor we have never experienced on these shores before, there is at least a segment of the Jewish community, and probably a part of virtually every American Jew, which has gained a fresh insight into the theme of hiddenness that plays such an essential role in the Megillahh. I even suspect that one piece of the reason that many American Jews are so troubled by the war in Israel is not only about Netanyahu’s government and the devastation in Gaza, but also the way the war forces us to confront the dynamic pull between showing up with our pride, and our urge to hide a part of ourselves and dissociate from the experience of half the world’s Jews. Which part of ourselves have we unfriended?

Yet as October 7th has painfully taught us, many of the people we thought were our friends and allies have also unfriended us. They have gone into hiding as well. Like me and AJ, we initially couldn’t quite figure out what went wrong with those people and groups with whom we had long relationships.

By now, we understand that this sort of invisibility is not about us. It is about fair weather friends, who, when it grew too difficult for them to calibrate the moral dimensions of the Middle East, simplified their lives by choosing a side. This is also a dimension of the Megillah, in which Haman and his minions are joined by all those who we previously thought were good people, or at least real friends. Our colleges. Our high schools. Even our elementary school teachers. We have become invisible to them. They have ghosted us.

This reminds me of a teaching by the Rambam, in which he delineated three types of friendship: virtue, confidence, and benefit.

Friendships of virtue are those who help us be our best selves. Our friends of confidence are those to whom we can confide our souls, our secrets, and our innermost depths. Finally, our utilitarian friendships would be like our business partners, or those work friendships that never outlast the job.

In our transactional world, what October 7th demonstrated was that many of those we thought were our friends of confidence or virtue were really just friends of benefit. There was much less there than we thought.

Many of us are recalibrating to this new world and its challenges. Here too, the Megillah provides us with a road map. For if the early parts of the Purim story are about hiddenness, the later sections are about us showing up with pride, purpose, and strength.

What this reminds us is that hiddenness is only ever a temporary state. By the end of the Megillah, the Jews of Shushan and all of Persia know who their real friends are, and they are not afraid to defend themselves against those enemies who wish to kill them. Not only are they willing to do so, but their new found visibility concludes with a massive celebration. They are joyful of course because they overcame their existential challenges. But it is worth us asking ourselves if that joy is also the manifestation of what happens when we no longer feel the need to hide, such that we can fully show up.

As a child, I wasn’t able to do that with AJ: Today we recognize that for our kids in schools and colleges, many find themselves in a similar situation, akin to the early chapters of the Megillah. They feel forced to hide the Jewish parts of themselves to feel safe. That is tragic, but just as Esther was able to stand up for the entire Jewish people, we adults have a similar possibility to be proudly Jewish. In that way, we can be important role-models for our children, who find themselves in an untenable position, even as we advocate for them.

We can also remind them and ourselves that hiddenness is indeed only a temporary state, so that we don’t lose hope when we find ourselves withdrawing. As the Hanukkah liturgy reminds us, in every age a hero or sage arose to our aid. Today, we can each embrace this heroic mission. Maybe not all of the time, but enough of the time.

Chag Purim Sameach,

Rav D

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