The Festival of Purim summons us to reflect on masks, danger, and second-guessing.
The streets were quiet that late, winter evening. I pulled into my driveway and stepped out of the car. I paused on the front porch to reach for my keys. That’s when I heard the sound coming up behind me: hurried footsteps, crunching on the snow.
I turned quickly and saw the man bounding up the front lawn. Nothing about him registered except the ski mask over his face and the gun in his hand.
He asked for my wallet. I handed it over. He searched through it, found no cash, and dropped it on the ground. He told me to empty my pockets, asked for my car keys, and rummaged through my glove box. Again, he found nothing of value.
Then off he ran, leaving me to hurry inside and punch 911 into the phone.
The whole episode lasted no more than three minutes from beginning to end. I don’t think my heart rate increased a beat. He never said a threatening word; in fact, he was almost polite.
He didn’t force his way into the house, didn’t put his gun to my head, didn’t order me to lie down on the concrete. The whole experience was surreal. He even tossed me my keys before he ran off, taking leave with the absurd admonition, “Next time have money.”
By the time the police arrived, I was shaking. There had been a robber, but I couldn’t describe him. There had been a gun and a car, but the darkness made description impossible. Nothing remained him except footprints in the snow. Nothing had been taken from me — except my peace of mind.
By the end of the week, I wondered whether it had happened at all.
Perhaps the Jews of Persia felt the same way 2,378 years ago.
The illusion of annihilation
One day, every Jewish man, woman, and child had found themselves under a death sentence from King Ahasuerus and his wicked viceroy, Haman.
Literally the next day, the Jews found themselves restored to grace: the leader of the Jews, Mordechai, had taken Haman’s place as viceroy, while Haman himself had been hanged from the gallows he had built for Mordechai. Jews far and wide marveled at such a dramatic turnabout, quite possibly wondering whether they had ever truly been in danger.
It would have been a fair question. Indeed, some five centuries later the students of Rabbi Shimon asked their teacher, “What had the Jews of Persia done to incur the wrath of heaven? Why did they deserve the death penalty at the hands of Haman?”
The rabbi replied, “They committed the sin of idolatry years earlier when they bowed down to the graven image erected by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.”
“But they only appeared to bow down to the idol,” the students protested, “because they feared for their lives if they refused.”
“Very true,” answered Rabbi Shimon. “And that is why they only appeared to be in any real danger from the wicked Haman.”
We have met the enemy…
What an astonishing perspective! Is it really possible that Haman never posed a genuine threat to the Jews, that their lives and the existence of the entire nation had never been imperiled, that any appearance of danger had in fact been nothing but an illusion?
According to Rabbi Shimon, the Jewish people did not escape a narrow brush with death. Rather, they were made to believe that their lives were on the line to compel them to make what the sages call cheshbon hanefesh — an accounting of the soul: to look into their hearts, to examine their deeds, to evaluate their attitudes, to contemplate their character, to seek out any possible reason to explain why they felt themselves abandoned by their Creator.
…and it is us
In the case of the Jews of Persia, their near-fatal flaw had been to trust in a flesh and blood tyrant instead of trusting in the King who reigns over Kings. They knew it was wrong to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, but they convinced themselves they had no choice. After three days of fasting and sincere self-reflection, they realized that what they had done thinking to save themselves had — or, at least. appeared to have — put their very survival in jeopardy.
And what of my encounter with a man hiding behind a mask and a gun?
I might have spent months or years contemplating that question, making my own accounting of the soul. It was not lost on me that my own apparent brush with death came three days after the bombing of Jerusalem’s Number 19 bus, which left ten dead and fifty injured. Like the people who got off the bus a stop before the blast or intended to board a stop later, my own life was merely the squeeze of a criminal’s finger away from a violent end.
Was I ever really in danger? Or was I only close enough to danger to make me ask:
Why me? Why them? Why now?
Until the arrival of the End of Days, when all mysteries will be revealed, we can never answer such questions with certainty.
This week, Jews around the world commemorate their ancestors’ miraculous reversal of fortune with the Festival of Purim. It’s a time of joy and solemn revelry, calling on us to ask questions and seek answers by searching every corner of our souls. For that is the path toward wisdom and righteousness, the path we must all walk as we strive to understand the most impenetrable secrets of our own hearts and aspire to make ourselves worthy of every step we take under the heavens.