Today is the first day of Adar, the Hebrew month corresponding to the 11th Biblical month. There is an ancient Hebrew saying: “When Adar begins, we revel in happiness.” The reason for the joyous nature of the month is the occurrence, on the 14th day of the month, of the holiday of Purim. On this holiday, we celebrate the triumph over the wicked Haman as told in the Book of Esther and we rejoice throughout the month.
Children and adults alike dress up in costumes on Purim, a custom that symbolizes the hidden nature of the Purim story. For example, although the story is one of miracle and salvation, G-d’s name is not mentioned at all in the Book of Esther. It is as if G-d’s very presence in the story is hidden. And so we don costumes that hide our own true identity.
It has occurred to me, though, that this theme of identity and hidden identity is one that can be applied in a more profound way to the identities of the main characters of the book: Mordecai and Esther. When Esther first enters the king’s palace: “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred.” (Esther 2:10) In contrast, when Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman and explains to Haman’s men that he is a Jew, the assumption being that bowing to Haman includes a pagan element, Haman’s response is to plot against the entire Jewish nation. (3:5-6) It might be argued, therefore, that Mordecai should have shown caution and concealed his identity, following the same advice he gave to his niece Esther.
It is also interesting to note the use of names in Esther. We are told that Esther’s original name is Hadassah, the former being a Persian name and the latter a Hebrew name. Mordecai is clearly a Persian name but he is identified from the start as a Jewish man of the tribe of Benjamin. (2:5-7) Both of these characters, therefore, are part of Persian society and yet are set apart. They have a Persian identity but their alternative and primary identity is that of a Jew.
The Book of Esther is a book of exile and as such gives us a wonderful insight into Jewish life as a minority in a foreign country. It is the story of the first exile experience of the nation of Israel after the loss of independence and sovereignty. The need to walk carefully, to hide one’s identity, to plea the case of the nation before a silly and rash king is classic to the Jewish exilic experience.
Today, we have returned to our land, some 2500 years after the Purim story took place. But since our return is still fresh, and the years of exile so long before that, it is quite possible that much of Israel’s behavior in the international arena is still colored by the Diaspora experience. We may be a sovereign nation, but we sometimes find it difficult to stand up to powerful nations who try to impose their political agendas upon us. We have a different standard, a different set of values, and faith does or at least should influence our decisions. But, instead, we speak of global realities and try to accommodate our unique needs within the framework of European or American understandings of our needs.
Many years ago, I was given a gift of money by my aunt and uncle to purchase a piece of artwork for our new home. We were a young couple and had never bought a painting before. We went shopping in a Jerusalem gallery and a wonderful lithograph caught my eye. It was a picture of a Jew, dressed anachronistically in Eastern European Hassidic garb, standing upright in the Persian court as all others were prostrate before the king. It was a powerful rendition of Mordecai refusing to bow before Haman and my husband and I knew that this was the painting that would hang in our living room!
Something about that pose, and the corresponding incident in the Purim story, has always struck me. Because Mordecai, contrary to the wisdom he passes along to his niece, refuses to hide his identity and bow to the pagan customs of his day. Despite his Persian name, he makes a bold choice to remain true to his identity, and it is his faith that carries him through. For although G-d’s name is not mentioned in the book, we sense His presence throughout.
As we are about to celebrate the Purim holiday, and as Prime Minister Netanyahu is about to meet with President Obama in Washington, I pray that our prime minister, named for Mordecai’s ancestor Benjamin, is able to stand tall before the US president. For years, Israel has tried to avoid discussing the settlement issue with international leaders, preferring to pay lip service to various peace proposals that call for Israeli withdrawal from the heart of Biblical Israel. Politicians talk about security needs and strategic depth, democracy and terrorism. But they have rarely, if ever, talked about our Jewish identity and how that identity informs the connection to the land.
G-d selected Abraham some 4,000 years ago to father the Jewish people and G-d selected the Land of Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people. It is the place where we are called upon to be a light unto the nations. The time has come to take full possession of our identity, to come forward and declare — this land is ours!