There’s a passage in the Shaarei Zedek, a 14th-century mystical tract, in which the anonymous author recounts a literal ecstasy, an exiting of the soul from the body. What is inside becomes outside, and through the medium of language, the process of the world’s unfolding is re-envisioned beautifully as God looking in the mirror.
The kabbalists tell us that the Scroll of Esther is about the nistar, that which is hidden, and we would do well to remember that what is hidden inside ourselves is a portal to that which lies beyond all worlds. Mel Gibson recently drew headlines for saying that the Holy Ghost inspired him to make his film “The Passion of the Christ.” When pressed to explain, he said that what he meant was that God “ordains” everything — God made my bed this morning, Gibson said.
They say that it’s a mistake to suppose that God is a character determining our choices. God is our choices. God’s hand does not superimpose itself on the narrative. It is the narrative.
On Purim, that which seems to be dual — inside/outside, concealed/revealed — is understood to be One. Distinctions between the finite world and the Infinite One are seen to be illusion. Note all the doubleness in Purim: Esther, who is Hadassah; two banquets; two rival courtiers, Mordecai and Haman; the twin traitors, Bigtan and Teresh; the hanging tree intended for one but used for another; the king’s palace supplanting the Temple. The Else and the Here are always flipping back and forth. Seems and Is conflate and split apart, join and separate, as illusion and reality seem to mingle. The doubleness is part of Purim itself: the carnival, the inversion and yet also the theater of the mystical.
One literary image ties these threads together: the mask. Masks are a feature of carnivals the world over, from the motleys of the Day of the Dead to the costumes of the Chinese New Year. Masks are curious things: They conceal and reveal at the same time. People express more in the masks they choose to wear than in any other choice of apparel. Of course, clothes themselves are masks, concealing the naked body as they reveal social status and self-image. We dress up in business suits and miniskirts in a constant social masquerade, yet we are doing more than simply hiding our bodies; we are revealing our souls.
Ordinary clothing is calculated to project an image, often with a goal in mind of some monetary, sexual or social gain. Carnival masks tend to go deeper. They tend to express what we really see ourselves to be, a communication masked, appropriately enough, by the merriment that surrounds them. Perhaps because we understand the mask to be part of a game, we are able to play the game freely.
There is a symmetry that links Purim and Yom Kippur, or, as the rabbis playfully called it, Yom Ki-Purim, a day like Purim. On Yom Kippur, we introspect, and try to divest our inner selves of the masks we wear every day. On Purim, like the Shaarei Zedek mystic, our souls themselves are externalized, ecstasized in the form of the mask. Ironically, like the Scroll of Esther itself, what appears to be pure surface is in fact concealing — and simultaneously revealing — our deepest selves. Hebraism is a trend favoring depth over surface: On Purim, the surface conceals depth but also reveals it — perhaps subverting it as well.
At the same time, there is an undeniable lightness to the holiday of Purim, as if the gravitas of Yom Kippur has simply been parodied out of sensibility. Everybody needs a little lightness, fun; kids get dressed up, men wear women’s clothes, students make fun of teachers. Carnival is catharsis — but also revelation because at the heart of Jewish law lies the arbitrariness of its conventions. Forbidden animals are no less holy than permitted ones, and yet they are forbidden. Normally, this fundamental arbitrariness is a key to holiness — not to reduce it to something else. It’s not holy because it’s healthy, it’s holy because it’s holy. But on Purim, we remember that underlying randomness, that chaos underneath, and we celebrate it.
If we truly drink ad lo yadah, until we can’t tell the difference between heroes and villains, there is a terrible fear in the realization that good and evil are interchangeable, that even these terms are masks, conventions. It’s a good thing we’re drunk by then. Because we see that things could’ve just as well gone the other way for the Persian Jews, whose neighbors were only too happy to exterminate them. We realize that the Jews themselves got carried away, asking for a second day to continue the battle. We see that who we “are” is itself just a postmodern mask within a mask. All the drunken gloating and militaristic violence that has accompanied Purim in recent years is undermined by the great instability that the holiday recognizes.
Purim is a holiday of Milan Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being.” Yes, Purim is about escapism — but it is an escapism not from reality to fantasy, but from our fantasies of stability to the reality of chaos. It is an escape from the world of “serious” masks to the self-conscious ironizing of adopted ones, an escape from the world of sobriety into a confrontation with chaos. What, after all, do you meet when you cast off every convention? You meet the Ein Sof, which on Purim looks an awful lot like the abyss.
Megillat Esther pummels the reader with this Nothingness. The whole story is like a caricature of the Diaspora: The Jews are safe and secure one moment, willfully not returning to the land of Israel, and then suddenly plunged into uncertainty as the dominant groups in the empire turn against them. And then, at the end, they get rich, so everything is okay.
Purim is not only a holiday of contradiction — it’s a day that undoes the notion of contradiction. There must be stable meanings for contradiction to be coherent; here there is only shrapnel.
And yet Megillat Esther drops hints throughout the shrapnel that suggest something more. For example, the repeated uses of the word “malchut,” the term kabbalists later use for the Presence of God in the universe (and “keter,” the ineffable “crown”). The way things happen to work the right way in the Scroll of Esther is the ultimate doubling — it’s the doubling of God and not-God. Is “God” the explanation for the series of outrageous fortunes? Or does God play dice, cast purim (lots) that randomly determine the way our lives unfold? Esther’s narrative is, in some ways, a return to the theory of miracle in the Torah: the wind happening to part the Red Sea at the right time, the king happening to take a liking to Esther’s face — it’s all the same world in which we live every day, with nothing supernatural and no magic. Only God/not-God/God, depending on our level of attention.
We are creatures thrown together by randomness. Our insides are only layers of masks. And yet we are capable of great acts, if we understand that randomness and value are not mutually exclusive. Most of us are not called upon to risk our lives as Esther did, but on our smaller stages, all of our acts have significance.
Purim’s laughter invites us to see ourselves, as on Yom Kippur, in all our absurdity and in all our attempts to transcend it. “There is only this!” Purim says. “Act well!” Meanwhile, the day ticks backward, like so many spikes on a child’s grogger, or like sparks from an anvil on which a soul is being forged anew by being blasted piece from piece.
Jay Michaelson is the editor in chief of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. He is teaching “Kabbalah 101” this month at the Sol Goldman 14th Street Y in Manhattan.