On Purim we acknowledge that not all is as it seems. We read the megillah where the cast of characters defy their presumed identities and their motives are anything but straightforward. Even God, arguably the “main character,” pulling the strings behind the scenes, doesn't appear at all in the text.
Is King Achasverosh good, bad, or a hapless sap? Is Mordechai culpable, at least in part, for instigating Haman? Queen Esther, discreetly Jewish, is certainly a hero but at what personal cost to her; is the role of queen at all appealing to her? These main characters and the minor characters (who play small parts which lead to big outcomes) leave us appreciating that who people are is complex and the lives they lead, or appear to lead, might not give us a sense of who “they really are.”
Still, year after year, we read the megillah, knowing the impending plot twists which, after years of repetition, seem ordinary and predictable. We take the traditional characterizations of the megillah’s heroes and villains for granted. And, as we listen to the megillah, they assume for us the same role as they did the year before. But in fact, Purim ought to remind us that people can’t simply be placed into neat categories or their motivations assumed. It highlights that in any series of events, there may be factors altogether unaccounted for which contribute to plot twists and turns. It sensitizes us to the fact that unexpected, seemingly minor characters, can direct outcomes towards a certain favorable or unfavorable result.
It has become tradition to don costumes on Purim. Not only is this tradition a fulfillment of “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B'Simcha,” “when the month of adar arrives we increase our joy,” but it is also a reminder that we have the ability to play multiple roles and exhibit various personas in our personal lives. We can dress up like one person but act like another. We can appear to be a hero but act like a villain and vice versa. And now, with the prevalence of multiple social media platforms, we have even more opportunities to engineer versions of our outward selves which may or may not reflect our inner selves. It is interesting to consider, if Purim had occurred in modern times, what role would social media have played throughout the story, with its twists and turns, and in the final outcome of “big reveals” and divine justice.
We celebrate Purim with a special joy and exuberance because, while for some time the fate of the Jews of Persia was precarious, the ultimate result was triumphant salvation. It was then, in the final act, that the true nature of all the characters were revealed; when their public selves matched who they “really” were. In our personal lives as well, Purim reminds us that as we strive to improve ourselves as a nation and as individuals, our tradition can continue to guide us if we truly internalize its values through learning and practice. Ultimately, once we align our outward behaviors and personas with our deeply rooted inner values, our success as a people, like the Jews of Shushan, will be most assured.
Rabbi Azaryah Cohen