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Purim: So, who am I? A different answer with each lechaim

The well-known directive from the sages is that on Purim,

One must become inebriated until one cannot distinguish [lit. “does not know”] between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”

This Talmudic saying is the foundation for the joy of Purim, both in Jewish law and in the Torah’s inner dimension. But how should we understand the stipulation that the drinking should continue until we no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai?

Let’s begin by saying that it is not necessary to interpret the difference between knowing and not knowing a well-defined moment in time, an exact moment while drinking when I no longer know. Instead, moving from knowing to not-knowing can be thought of as a developing process. To begin with, I know. Then, I reach a level at which I don’t know. But, from that new perspective, I can see a new level of not-knowing and aspire to it. In this way, I continually pass between states of knowing (the difference between Haman and Mordechai) and not knowing what the difference is.

So, just as inebriation is a process, being able to tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman has different meanings, depending on what state we are at.

A well-known Chabad speaker once quipped: What do you get when you cross a Lubavitcher with Carl Sagan? Billions and billions and billions of lechaim’s!!! So let’s start our journey and if you happen to be reading this on Purim, we invite you to say a lechaim with us at every stage!

The first lechaim – the tzadik rises, the wicked falls

Lechaimlechaim! In the most literal sense, the reason one might not be able to tell the difference between Mordechai being blessed and Haman being cursed is that we simply can’t decide which is greater, our joy over Mordechai’s rise to power or our joy at seeing Haman’s downfall. On Purim we do not hide the fact that we are happy at Haman’s downfall. It is enough to hear the clamorous outburst in synagogue when Haman’s name is mentioned during the Megillah reading, to prove the point. But, Purim joy is not merely tasteless schadenfreude, as we rejoice in someone else’s misfortune. We rejoice because the Almighty revealed His Providence over us. “Behold, the Guardian of Israel does not rest nor sleep,” and He intercedes in the story of the Megillah on our behalf, turning the tables around so that Haman’s evil plot of genocide overturns in the end to our benefit. Indeed, the 50-cubit high tree was Haman’s idea in the first place, and where eventually he himself was hung!

At the same time, we rejoice over Mordechai’s rise to power. In Shushan, Mordechai was our Rebbe, our beloved leader, and he rises to become the most important person in the entire kingdom, as the verse in the Megillah states, “For Mordechai the Jew is the second-in-command to Achashverosh.” We are justifiably proud of the fact that “our man,” the good guy, is victorious and we see it as a Divine revelation, sanctifying God’s Name. The tzadik, the righteous individual of the generation represents not only us as a people, but also the Almighty, since the entire story of the Megillah began with Mordechai refusing to pay homage to Haman and thereby sanctifying God.

So, which joy is greater? It is our joy over Haman’s downfall or over Mordechai’s ascent? When clear-headed, one might have a concrete opinion, preferring one or the other, but after a lechaim or two, it may become difficult to decide. This is the first level of not knowing.

Second lechaim: Who am I?

Having looked at Haman and Mordechai in the literal sense, as two actual people from the past, we now arrive at a deeper interpretation. From now on, Haman and Mordechai reflect different aspects of our own inner selves. Now, not knowing the difference between Haman and Mordechai means that I can’t rightly assess my self. Am I like Haman or am I like Mordechai?

Let’s say that in general I am a good Jew who follows the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law), but what am I really like underneath? Am I like Mordechai the tzadik, naturally aspiring to do good, but my evil inclination tempts me from without and tries to incite me against my better judgment? Or perhaps the opposite is true and inside I am truly like Haman, wicked and full of evil urges, base desires, anger and every other malevolence, but somehow or another I succeed in overcoming the gushing volcano inside me and masquerade as a tzadik?

Here, the sages teach us that “Even if the whole world says you are a tzadik, you should see yourself as wicked.” So, in general, I should perceive myself as the wicked Haman! True, I have many good points, but in essence I identify with my coarse animalistic tendencies (food, drink, etc.). I have a pure and holy neshamah (Divine soul), “an actual part of God Above,” a “pure soul that You have given me,” which can and should defeat my base self. But, although I go out of my way to act like a human being and not like an animal, inside I am truly just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In a similar vein, anyone who considers himself to be a tzadik has a serious problem – here is where pride comes into play, the beginning of all sin.

In short, it is actually my good inclination that can come to terms with my being more like the wicked Haman and it is my evil inclination that wants me to think that I am like the righteous Mordechai!

So, what happens on Purim? On the one hand, we can spot some of those more introverted, gentle individuals who after a few tots of drink begin a penetrating self-criticizing soul-search (something we tend to repress). Now, on Purim I can admit to the fact that somewhere deep inside me, within the inner confines of my soul, I am such a can of worms that it is frightening to think about it. Then I begin to cry, with the realization that it is I who am the wicked Haman, and it is only by a miracle that they haven’t yet hung me on a tree.

On the other hand, being inebriated on Purim as I should, I can also say, “I am the righteous Mordechai!” Throughout the year we come in contact with the baser, lowest layers of the soul, but on Purim we reach a deeper identity, rising to an inner, essential point where we are all righteous. This is the profound Jewish identity that arises on Purim in particular and Mordechai himself is the one who arouses it.

There are great tzadikim (righteous individuals) who can claim their own praise without it ever going to their head. The classic example of this is Moses who himself wrote the words of the Torah scroll, “And the man Moses was the most humble of all men.” Yet, Moses retained his great humility even while and after writing this verse. We too can reach this level on Purim: beyond my personal façade, underneath all the disguises and the masquerades, I am Jewish and as such I can identify with Mordechai and say, “blessed is Mordechai the Jew.”

So, at this stage, we truly do not know where we are on the scale that divides between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” So, who am I then?

The third lechaim: living in the present

Hold tight! The truth is that at the previous level, I still don’t know what not knowing is because with all my inner debating about who I am and what I am, Haman or Mordechai, I am still very much involved with my own self-image. I am trying to take hold of myself, to define myself and give myself a grade – wicked or righteous? I am attempting to keep the hold on to the directive, “Know thyself,” and even if the outcome is a draw, I am still steeped in self-knowledge and not with “non-knowledge.”

Now, after the third lechaim, we need to realize that the main thing is not to deal at all with the question of “who am I?” Now we begin to interpret that not knowing the difference between Haman is cursed and Mordechai is blessed means not caring whether the Haman in me is cursed or whether the Mordechai in me is blessed, because I am not trying to grade myself or define my self-image. Because, I realize that all the positive and negative traits I think I possess, none of them are really me. Maybe they are all in my imagination. Who knows what lies at the root of my soul?

So, with the third lechaim, we come to the realization that we need not have anything to do with all that soul-searching; it’s all just one big humungous waste of time. The most important aspect of serving God is to live in the present moment: at this very moment I am simply raw material that has not yet been formed and everything is still possible. I could now either be “blessed Mordechai” or, God forbid, “cursed Haman” and the same is true of the very next moment and any moment. Every second I can choose with perfect freedom of choice whether to play the part of Mordechai or of Haman. There is no point in trying to identify myself as wicked or as a tzadik, or imagine myself as being anywhere between the two, because even attempting to do so is missing my true goal. I must live the present, above any awareness of what has been, and only with what there should be at this very moment.

In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe places the figure of the beinoni, the intermediate individual, as an exemplar we should all aspire to. The beinoni is one who is forbidden even for a moment to look at himself and say, “I am like this, I am like that.” Rather, I am always an intermediate who can choose between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai. Every given moment is the first moment of time and I have to make sure that I choose to use it properly (even if I have fallen, I should not look back too much but look forward and choose good from now on). This is how we should behave throughout the entire year. Nonetheless, it is still difficult to detach ourselves from our natural tendency to grade ourselves, to assess our performance. Only on Purim, after a few lechaim’s to help us forget ourselves, can we really reach this level of not knowing anything of the past at all and only living in the present moment.

The fourth lechaim: behind all the masks

So, let’s make another “lechaim,” and take a deep breath. We began not knowing which joy was greater, Haman’s fall or the Mordechai’s ascent. We continued without knowing who I am and we rose to a level at which it makes no difference at all who I am because it’s all a masquerade…

Now comes the moment to remove all the disguises and reveal who is really hiding behind all the games. Purim is the festival of “the Book of Esther” (מְגִּילַת אֶסְתֵּר), which can be translated literally as, “revealing the hidden.” God too is hidden, as the verse says, “Indeed, You are a concealed God, the God of Israel who redeems.”

Behind the true Haman (the one on the tree) and the real Mordechai (the one riding the horse), behind my little inner Haman and my little inner Mordechai, and even behind my being at this present moment – behind it all is God Almighty. As we know, there is “none besides Him” Therefore, the more layers we peel away from reality as we generally perceive it, from space, from time, and from all the souls in the world, the more we remove the garments and look for the bare essence of reality, the more we eventually reveal God’s essential being.

It is impossible to completely raise the screen that conceals God’s essential being within all, because it would spoil the play. But, at the climax of the Purim festivities, we can reveal the secret hiding behind the screen: that behind all the thousands of masks of this world is the One and Only Unique eternal singularity. Once we have reached this stage we have truly reached a state that can be described as not knowing the difference between is the accursed Haman and the blessed Mordechai, because even behind Haman we perceive God’s singular essence.

This knowledge does not come to justify an anarchistic chaos in the world, God forbid. This state of knowledge that senses the secret behind all of reality is subtle and elusive. It does not contradict the true fact that we all have a clear mission to choose good and to loathe evil. In actual fact, this is the very reason why everything is possible, because just as God masquerades in different disguises and is hidden everywhere, so we too can follow His example and decide to dress up as Mordechai all year round.

Moses and Mordechai

To conclude, Purim is always in close proximity to Parashat Tetzaveh, in which we find a special phenomenon: Moses’ proper name is not mentioned. From when we read about Moses’ birth (inParashat Shemot), to the very end of the Pentateuch, this is the only parashah in which Moses’ name does not appear. This in spite of the fact that Moshe is addressed right at the beginning of the parashah with the words, “You command” and continues with God’s direct speech with Moses.

In Chassidut we learn that the lack of Moses’ name appearing indicates that in this parashah, he is at an even higher level of self. As we have seen, we can peel away our personal identity more and more, until we touch something of the unknowable, until we cannot know the difference (עַד דְּלֹא יָדַע), which also literally means, “until we come to the unknown” that is underneath all the masks that disguise the real me. This is the point that Moses reached when his proper name disappears and only the “you” with which God addresses him remains.

The sages state that “Mordechai in his generation was like Moses in his generation.” Moses’ soul is reincarnated as Mordechai, and combining these two figures brings us to the Jewish soul’s innermost essence, after removing all of its façades, disguises, and masks, until it reaches the unknown that is beyond all knowledge. When I reach this level, I realize that I am nothing but a happy Jew.

Happy Purim!

from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s Purim Eve farbrengen, 5772

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