Purim and the UnMasking of False Certainties
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a 1953 essay contrasted two types of thinker – the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog has one big idea. Everything else is filtered out. The fox conversely has lots of ideas. It likes to see the broader context, how concepts fit together and is always anxious to bring more information to light. Berlin’s point is of course that it might be psychologically easier to be the hedgehog but to understand a complex world it pays to be a fox.
As Matthew Syed pointed out in the Sunday Times, ‘’the world is being dragged almost without our noticing towards ever more extreme hedgehoggery. Twitter users argue on the basis of 280-character caricatures of one another’s positions. Interviewers seek not to elicit information but to provoke viral controversies’’(1). The fall of Trump has indeed left in its wake all too often artificially emphatic stances, false certainties and empathy sacrificed in the rush to misconstrue and misrepresent.
Shushan, we may argue, is the domain of the hedgehog. Revelry and opulence are the big idea to which all else play second fiddle and conformity to royal and state will, are the order of the day. Any divergence from what the status quo determines is punished. Vashti is disposed for example, when she refuses to display her charms at a drunken celebration. Mordecai’s refusal to bow down before Haman led, without so much as the batter of an eyelid, to the elaborate plans, not only for Mordecai’s but for all the Jews’ destruction. There is no place for dissent. Shushan remained silent bystanders(2) as the edict went out to every province in the land and the king and his chief official sat down to feast. Nothing should come in the way of the ostentatious and grandiose trappings of court as we learn that ‘’one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth’’(3). Difference is not tolerated. Indeed no one may even enter the inner court uninvited and expect to live. Decisions of court are made without any discussion or debate, rely on the whim of the king and lack empathy and concern for the other.
What ensues is a masterclass in the unmasking of false certainties as Mordecai and Esther seek to question and then overturn the rotten architecture of the state. What are the ingredients that they use to achieve this?
Adopting the Mask of Their Surroundings
Mordecai and Esther’s first step is their acculturation to the environment. Their Jewishness is so unmarked that Esther is able to hide her identity from Ahasuerus. Masterminding the initial plan Mordecai is at pains to ensure that ‘’Esther (does) not reveal her people or kindred’’(4). Like a model student, she seeks and follows the very best advice from the King’s eunuch and does not deviate from her suggestions in preparation for the beauty pagent. As the text says: ‘’She did not ask for anything but what Hegai advised’’(5).
Embellishing what Haman meant in his words to the King when he planted the seed about the people dispersed in the provinces of the realm whose ‘’laws are diverse from those of every people’’(6), the Talmud goes on to explain that this means: ‘’They do not eat with us, drink with us or intermarry with us.’’(7) It is of course conversely all these things that Esther does, including most troubling of all for the sages – her marriage to the gentile King.
The Book of Esther’s lack of religious sentiment and any direct reference to God led some to question its worthiness for inclusion in the Biblical canon. It led others to make it more religiously acceptable. The Greek version for example holds that Mordecai and Esther kept the mitzvot and also directly references God’s intervening hand in the orchestration of events. There is however plenty to maintain that Esther and Mordecai remained true to who they were throughout, and only adopted the external mask of their surroundings for reasons of expediency. All is carried out, however subtly at times, with an unfailing determination to ensure Haman and his sons’ demise.
Esther’s tireless pursuit of her outcome and the lengths that she goes to in order to achieve it reminds me of the famous Rebbe Nahman story of The Turkey Prince:
A prince once became mad and thought that he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit naked under the table, pecking at bones and pieces of bread, like a turkey. All the royal physicians gave up hope of curing him of this madness. The king grieved tremendously.
A sage arrived and said, “I will undertake to cure him.” The sage undressed and sat naked under the table, next to the prince, picking crumbs and bones. “Who are you?” asked the prince. “What are you doing here?” “And you?” replied the sage. “What are you doing here?”
“I am a turkey,” said the prince. “I’m also a turkey,” answered the sage.
They sat together like this for some time, until they became good friends. One day, the sage signaled the king’s servants to throw him shirts. He said to the prince, “What makes you think that a turkey can’t wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” With that, the two of them put on shirts.
After a while, the sage again signaled and they threw him pants. As before, he asked, “What makes you think that you can’t be a turkey if you wear pants?”
The sage continued in this manner until they were both completely dressed. Then he signaled for regular food, from the table. The sage then asked the prince, “What makes you think that you will stop being a turkey if you eat good food? You can eat whatever you want and still be a turkey!” They both ate the food.
Finally, the sage said, “What makes you think a turkey must sit under the table? Even a turkey can sit at the table.” The sage continued in this manner until the prince was completely cured.
Just as the sage was able to mirror the behaviour of the prince and introduce subtle adjustments overtime, so too Esther was able to wear the mask of her surroundings and guide the King on a journey until he reversed his decree.
Strategising, Self-Reflection and Prayer
The second key approach that Mordecai and Esther adopt in order to achieve their aims are an attitude of continual reflection. Unlike the decisions of the king, who was swayed by emotion and external appearance and had seemingly little regard for the consequences of his actions, both Mordecai and Esther were strategic thinkers who showed foresight, consideration and psychological depth.
Their decision making, in contrast to the court is driven by data, questioning and a desire to learn. When Esther is under the supervision of Hegai for example, ‘’Mordecai would walk about in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was faring and what was happening to her’’(8). On hearing about the decree, ‘’Esther summoned Hathach…and sent him to Mordecai to learn the why and wherefore of it all.’’(9) The verb yada, to learn is used of them both but is not used in reference to anyone else in the entire book.
It is Mordecai’s message to Esther, perhaps key to the entire understanding of the book that demonstrates how deeply he has reflected:
‘’Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows perhaps you have attained to royal position for such a crisis’’(10)
These lines, in their appeal to another realm convey the urgency and importance of the perennial need to act as agents for God in our sphere of existence. They also act as a warning to all Jews who have found comfort in the external trappings of diaspora throughout history. It is of course these very words that act as the galvanising force to summon Esther into action. Her first initiative following receipt of them however is quite remarkable. She does not go headlong into action. Esther’s initial recourse is to urge three days of fasting and prayer. She is therefore a deliberate practitioner of mindful action. What follows next and throughout the rest of the book are a series of detailed actions often at her instigation but all this is preceded by three whole days of fasting and contemplation. Her heartfelt words as she embarks on this course ‘’if I am to perish, I shall perish’’(11) suggests that those days are filled with meditation and deep inner reflection on her very being and just what she is there to do.
Breaking Bread with the Enemy
The third key component in the plan to transform the rotten inner core of the court is Esther’s preparedness to sit down with her enemy not once but twice. During the intimacy of their two dinners, she enables her enemy to choreograph his own downfall and through her subtle instrumentation ensures that it is the king calling the shots to achieve her ends. This however is only possible through her bravery in coming face-to-face with her nemesis.
Today we live in a world where some refuse to share a platform with those who think or believe differently to them. Esther serves as a reminder that even in adversity we must sit down with our adversaries. Such meetings may well lead to reconciliation. This of course was not to be in Esther’s case. Her meetings with Haman and the king did however lead to the salvation of the Jewish people.
Action as the Antidote to Apathy
What undergirds the entire approach from both Esther and Mordecai throughout is their unrelenting resolve to act. The Talmud in commenting on the book, likens Esther to the hind of the dawn:
‘’What is true of the light of dawn? Its light rays out as it rises; at the beginning, light comes little by little; then it spreads wider and wider, grows and increases; and at last it bursts into shining glory. So too, Israel’s redemption through Esther came about little by little. At the beginning ‘’Mordecai sat in the king’s gate’’ (Esther 2:21); then ‘’the king saw Esther the queen’’ (Esther 5:2); then ‘’on that night the king could not sleep’’(Esther 6:1); then ‘’Haman took the apparel and the horse’’(Esther 6:11); then ‘’they hanged Haman’’(Esther 7:10); then Ahasuerus said to Esther and Mordecai, ‘’Write concerning the Jews as you see fit’’(Esther 8:8); then ‘’Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel’’(Esther 8:15) and at last ‘’the Jews had light and gladness’’(Esther 8:16)(12)
This passage suggests that step by step, with resolve and determination there is light to be found at the end of the long walk to freedom. None of us may truly know the power of our actions, none of us are able to see the consequences of our choices in advance but conscious, mindful efforts as exemplified by Mordecai and Esther do indeed yield a life of blessing.
Much has been written about God’s hidden hand in events given the extraordinary sequence that proceeds in leading to the Jews’ salvation. The message is certainly not any sort of advocacy for a reliance of divine intervention. Time and again as the chronology of events unfolds, it is Esther and Mordecai who go well beyond their comfort zones in placing themselves in the geography where action and impact are possible.
In commenting on the most pernicious of emotions – that of apathy, in her recent book, Elif Shafak reminds us of one of the greatest paradoxes of our times. This is that ‘’hardliners are more passionate, engaged and involved than many moderates. When we do not engage in civic discourse and public space, we become increasingly isolated and disconnected, thereby breeding apathy. When we become more engaged, more informed about all that is happening, however, we feel more disappointed, anxious, angry, surrounded with negative feelings in the face of current news and fast-moving events.’’(13)
Esther and Mordecai are the supreme examples of how to stay engaged without succumbing to apathy. Driven by purpose against all the odds they subtly challenge the status quo and change it. They do so in some of the most counter-intuitive ways imaginable – they don the mask of their surroundings, their actions are guided by deep reflection, they are not afraid to come face-to-face with their vehement adversary and above all they remain resolute in pursuing their course of action, one step at a time.
In so doing they help us answer one of the challenging questions that we face in our own day – ‘’How do we simultaneously remain engaged and manage to stay sane?’’(14)
(1) The Sunday Times January 31 2021
(2) ‘’The city of Shushan was dumfounded’’(Esther 3:15)
(3) Esther 4:2
(4) Esther 2:10
(5) Esther 2:15
(6) Esther 3:8
(7) B. Meg 13b-14a
(8) Esther 2:11
(9) Esther 4:5
(10) Esther 4:13-15
(11) Esther 4:16
(12) B. Yoma 29a
(13) Shafak, How To Stay Sane In An Age Of Division, Profile Books 2020, p.77-78
(14) Shafak, How To Stay Sane In An Age Of Division, Profile Books 2020, p.78