My dear readers, every year I write here about Purim, and every year I discover something new about this fascinating festival. Today, we will start with a very simple question (although the discourse this question leads to is not simple at all): Why is there a masquerade on Purim? Why do we dress in costumes on Purim? We don’t read about any masquerade in the book of Esther – so why is it that, for the Jewish people, this story became the story of masquerade?
Before we answer this question, I will tell you a relatively contemporary “Purim” story (one of the many that have happened in Jewish history).
It happened in communist Russia. In 1948, the dictator Joseph Stalin, rapidly changing his earlier policy of support for “proletarian Jewish culture,” launched a campaign to destroy whatever was left of this culture. Thousands of Jews were arrested and tortured. I will never forget the horrors described by my friend’s father who was among those thousands – he was only 18 at the time. Arrested Jews were charged with treason, Jewish bourgeois nationalism, espionage and working for America. Many of them were tortured into making confessions. Those who were not executed were sent to the prisons and concentration camps in freezing regions of Russia.
1953 marked the beginning of Stalin’s infamous Doctor’s Plot: the Soviet newspapers were full of horrible articles “exposing” and “disclosing” Jewish doctors who “were poisoning Russian children and killing the infants”. Six Jewish doctors were arrested and tortured into making a confession. After that, Stalin’s plan to eliminate Russia’s Jews (around 3 million), by deporting them to uninhabitable regions of the Soviet Union, was presented as a merciful act of protecting them “from the righteous wrath and vengeance of Russian people”. The deportation of the Jews had to begin on the 6th of March, 1953.
In 1953, Purim fell on March 1. In his autobiography, To Remain a Jew, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber recalls reading the Book of Esther to a group of Jewish prisoners in the Soviet camp. He writes about the reaction of one of those prisoners: “Who needs your tales about what happened 2,500 years ago? Tell me, where is your God today? Is it not enough that Hitler finished six million? Here they are about to be done with another three. Do you not see the trains and the barracks that have already been built (for this purpose)?” Rabbi Zilber replied, “True, our situation is difficult, but don’t be so quick to eulogize us. Haman also sent orders to 127 provinces. God will yet help…. Stalin is a mere mortal… no one can know what will be with him in a half hour.”
That Purim night, just a few days before the scheduled trial of the Jewish doctors and literally half an hour after Rabbi Silver’s words, Stalin had a stroke. He died on March 5, just a few days later, to the great relief of Soviet Jews. Thousands of Jewish prisoners were freed. Thousands of Jews were saved – just like in the book of Esther.
“Where is your God today?” – asked that prisoner. Purim is the Jewish answer to the question: “Where is your God today?” For the extent of two full millenniums, our people have lived under the perpetual claims that God has not been with us anymore, that He has abandoned us. Too often in our tragic history, God’s presence and God’s love for Israel have remained unseen – not only to our enemies but to our friends as well – moreover, even to ourselves. That is why, even more than to others, Purim is the answer to ourselves, to our own question: “Where are you, God?” Some of you might know that God is not mentioned in the book of Esther even once. We read this story, and for a while, indeed, it feels as if there is no God of Israel in this frightening report of the first planned genocide against Jewish people – just like sometimes it feels as if there is no God of Israel in our history, with all the atrocities and genocides committed against Jewish people. However, the Book of Esther was included in the canon because, in fact, it is all about God. Even though the word “God” doesn’t appear openly in the Book, we understand that it was God Himself who orchestrated all the events of this story and saved His people.
More often than not, God remains hidden in our lives— until we recognize Him and His handwriting in the circumstances and events that unfold. Yes, it does sometimes happen that God’s salvation comes as a miracle, defying natural laws (like the Exodus, for instance). Oftentimes, however, divine salvation is “disguised” in ordinary events – “hidden” in what can be perceived as a series of “coincidences” – like what happens in the book of Esther!
Now we can answer our question: why is there a masquerade on Purim? We disguise ourselves on Purim because it is a way of reminding ourselves that nothing is at it seems. God “disguised” his presence behind the natural events, which are described in the Purim story. The masquerade is a powerful reminder: though God has been concealed, He is ever-present in Jewish History – and that is the message of this amazing book and this amazing Festival!
I would like to finish this post with yet another proof of this message – yet another “Purim” story. This story happened around Purim, although not exactly on the date. In the eyes of the Jewish sages, however, even the very beginning of the month of Adar heralds joy and victory: “When we enter Adar, we increase in joy,” says Talmud, and the story I want to share today, happened right after the beginning of Adar II in 1948 (5708).
You know of course, that 1948 is the year of the birth of the state of Israel. On May 14, 1948 David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of Independence – and just a few minutes later, United States President Harry S. Truman recognized the new State of Israel. Most people do know that, however, few know the amazing story behind that.
I doubt you have ever heard of Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish guy from New York. When Eddie was a child, his parents moved to Kansas City and there he met a boy who became his close friend. Their friendship grew when they were both in the Army during the First World War, and they started a business together after the war was over. When the recession hit, they had to close the business, and the partnership ended. Eddie Jacobson became a traveling salesman and eventually opened his own clothing store, while his friend, Harry Truman, went into politics and eventually became president of the United States. Throughout all this, the two remained friends.
At the beginning of 1948, while the Jews of the world desperately sought the support of America, the State Department advised the president not to support the establishment of the State of Israel. Truman was under tremendous pressure from all sides. At some point he said, “I don’t want to hear about Palestine anymore.” He refused to meet with Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization. It was then that the Jewish organizations reached out to the childhood friend of the President – Eddie Jacobson.
On March 13, 1948 (just after Adar began), Jacobson went unannounced (just like Esther) to see Truman in the Oval Office. Thus, God’s plan was set in motion: five days later Truman met secretly with Weizmann in the Oval Office and agreed to support the establishment of the State of Israel. Immediately after the State was declared, Harry Truman signed the proclamation.
Twenty years later, Truman wrote: “One of the proudest moments of my life occurred at 6:12 p.m. on Friday, May 14, 1948, when I was able to announce the recognition of the new State of Israel by the government of the United States. I remain particularly gratified by the role I was fortunate to play in the birth of Israel as, in the immortal words of the Balfour Declaration, “a national home for the Jewish people”.
I think, in this story, we clearly see the same message that the Book of Esther conveys; oftentimes it is only in hindsight that we can clearly see God acting in our history, or in our lives. The Festival of Purim reminds us that we shouldn’t be discouraged if we don’t “feel” God’s hand in our lives right now. Faith is the evidence of the things not seen. So we have to keep believing and trusting Him—one day, we will look back and clearly see God’s hand in hindsight. “In that day, you will ask Me nothing”.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
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Join the conversation (3 comments)
Thank you Julia for this “homily”, reminding us of what we know deep inside of ourselves! As Rabbi Tatz has said, “no one can prove that G-d exists, but there is compelling evidence.”(paraphrased)
Those 2 recent stories are great, I had not heard them before this. Thanks.
Since God is not directly mentioned, I think there are 2 ways to read the story, both valid, with one assuming God is behind things and the other way with coincidences happening.
I have read that “place” in the following verses may be an oblique reference to God: Est 4:13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.
Est 4:14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
This is because “place” can be used an a shorter form of “holy place” which in turn refers to where God resides in the heavens. Of course, it can also be read without those connections ala the 2nd way I mentioned. Thoughts?
I think “place” is understood in place of YHVH from Genesis 28:16-17, where Jacob realizes that God can be in a certain physical location on earth which he calls BeitEl (house of God). It all starts in Genesis 28:11, where the word makom (place) is used 4 times.