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Sweetening Fear on Purim

At the end of the Megillah reading on Purim, we sing “Cursed is Zeresh the wife of my nemesis, blessed is Esther, who is in my favor.”  The primary conflict in the Megillah is between Mordechai and “Haman who wished to destroy me.”[1] The Megillah, however, is called “The Scroll of Esther,” who stands off against Zeresh, the wife of my nemesis, who desires to infuse the Nation of Israel with fear.

The Talmud[2] specifies three fearsome factors in ascending order: The wolf, the lion, and the snake. In the soul, these animals symbolize three types of fear: The fear of the wolf is the fear of rape or invasion of any kind – home invasion, the revelation of personal secrets, etc. The fear of the lion, “the murderer” is fear of death, or of harm or loss. The fear of the tempting, sly snake is the fear of loss of sanity.

“Zeresh, the wife of my nemesis” uses all of the fears, as is alluded to in her name: זרש . The first letter of her name, zayin, parallels the first letter of the ze’ev (wolf). The second letter of Zeresh, reish, parallels the second letter of ari (lion). The third letter of Zeresh, shin, parallels the third letter of nachash (snake). When all these fears are aroused and it seems that the entire world is against us, we have to remember that “Esther is in my favor.” How does this help us deal with fear?

There are attributes that, at least in the beginning stage of their rectification, require complete nullification and breaking or deep clarification and separation between their negative and positive aspects. One of the foundations of chassidic psychology is that the attribute of fear, specifically, can be sweetened in and of itself. We learn this from the verse, “Happy is the man who is always afraid.”[3] Not only does the fear provide benefit and safeguarding,  but it also includes an experience of happiness and pleasure (which we learn from the first word of this verse, Ashrei (Happy is he). When we transform our external fears into true fear of Heaven, they transition from a negative experience to a positive experience.

The process of transformation takes place in three stages:

First, we must remember that every reality is in God’s hands, and hence, we should fear no one and nothing other than God. God is concealed in everything that happens and we can identify His hand through natural processes. This transforms external fear into a ‘simple’ fear of Heaven, teaching us that every type of threatening sorrow comes from the hands of God due to man’s sins. When we internalize this approach, it makes it possible for us to deal with fear by means of teshuvah (return to God) and mending our ways.[4]

In the second stage, we are elevated from external fear to internal fear of Heaven. The depth of fear of Heaven is not fear of punishment or harm – even if they rightfully come from God – but rather fear of disconnection and distance from God. “Closeness to God is good for me.”[5]  A bond of love connects me and God. The fear is that with my sins, I will create distance and concealment. This fear reminds me to keep our bond close and to be joyous in His love.

In the third stage, it becomes clear that the loving and beloved God Who conceals Himself behind everything that takes place in reality, is not really far from me. “Every soul of Israel, no matter how it falls, falls into the embrace of the Blessed God.”[6] The moment of fear can be likened to the experience in an amusement park – it heightens the joy of life. Often, parents play hide-and-seek with their child, so that both of them will have a good laugh when the parent reveals himself. The fear itself turns into laughter. This is the literal meaning of Pachad Yitzchak (the fear of Isaac)[7], the Name that Jacob used to describe the God of his father, Isaac. It literally means “fear will laugh.”

Fear fell upon the Jews in the kingdom of Ahashverosh. But when it became clear that the decree was a punishment from God for the sins of that generation, they understood that the ultimate purpose of God’s angry countenance was the joy of the renewal of their connection afterward. “With a small wrath did I conceal My face from you for a moment and with eternal loving-kindness will I have compassion upon you.”[8]

(And what about Zeresh? Haman and his sons were hung and the haters of Israel were killed. But Zeresh disappears. There is, however, an allusion to her. At the end of the Megillah, it says that beit Haman (the house of Haman) was given to Esther and Mordechai. In gematriah, beit Haman equals Zeresh! As the sages say, “His home is his wife.[9]” Perhaps Zeresh was sweetened and became the loyal maid or cook for Mordechai and Esther…).

Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay

[1] From the Shoshanat Yaakov Purim hymn.

[2] Brachot 13a.

[3] Proverbs 28:14.

[4] Maimonides, Laws of fasting 1:1-3.

[5] Psalms 73:28.

[6] Pri Tzaddik Naso 15.

[7] Genesis 31;42.

[8] Isaiah 54:8.

[9] Mishnah Yoma 1:1.

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