Unmasking the Divine on Purim.
Nineteen years ago, during my first month living in Israel, I was riding a bus up Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare, Jaffa Road. The bus stopped for a red light, and I gazed out the window. I saw an elderly, overweight woman trudging up the hill, schlepping many large bags. A beggar was sitting on the pavement, his hand outstretched. The old woman stopped, set her bags down, one at a time, on the sidewalk, rummaged through her purse, took out her wallet, and handed a coin to the beggar. At that point, the light changed and my bus drove off.
Last week, I left my house late for an appointment. Loaded down with bags of empty bottles to recycle at the supermarket after my appointment, I walked as fast as I could toward my car, parked in the Jewish Quarter parking lot, a five-minute walk from my house. Nearing the parking lot, I passed a beggar woman, her hand outstretched. I had given to this particular woman the week before, but now I was in a hurry and my arms ached from the weight of the bottles. As I raced by her, I called out, “This time I can’t. I’m sorry.”
I was five or six meters down the street when I remembered the old lady on Jaffa Road 19 years before. She was older, heavier, and more overburdened than I, yet she had stopped in her tracks in order to give a beggar a coin. If she could do it, so could I. I turned around, walked back the several meters to the beggar, put all my bags down with a clank, rummaged through my purse for my wallet, and gave the woman a shekel coin. She smiled and heaped blessings upon me.
Every action a human being does has three dimensions of effect. It affects the performer of the action, like a point on a page. It affects the other person or persons involved, as when a point extends to a line or a square. And it affects those who witness the action, indeed the whole society, as when a square swells into a cube.
For example, if A steals money from B, A affects himself; his own level of honesty and integrity is diminished. He also affects B, who is not only out that amount of money, but whose level of trust is now diminished. In addition, he affects whoever witnesses or hears of the theft, for stealing is now added to their concept of possible human behavior. The more thefts they witness or hear about, the more the “possible” becomes the “normal.”
This third effect actually encompasses not only those individuals who witness or hear about the theft, but society as a whole. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in America, I never saw a store with anti-shoplifting detectors at the exit. The plastic tags attached to every garment in every clothes store today did not exist. People could pay for their purchases by check without having to provide three different proofs of identity. What happened?
Individuals started to steal. Each and every theft chipped away at the standard of honesty in American society. What was once idiosyncratic became the norm. In this same way, every action performed by every individual, subtly but tangibly, affects the whole.
Judaism has two words that embody this concept. “Kiddush Hashem” means those actions that reveal God’s presence in the world. “Hillul Hashem” means those actions that hide God’s presence.
Whenever a human being performs an act of integrity, honesty, kindness, compassion, or self-sacrifice, he is revealing godliness in the world. “Kiddush Hashem” literally means “sanctifying the Divine Name.” Although the term is most often used to describe grand, heroic deeds, such as when Jews have chosen death rather than forsaking their religion, it applies as well to any action that reveals God in the world.
The old lady on Jaffa Road stopping to give the beggar a coin performed a Kiddush Hashem. By revealing her capacity for kindness despite the hassle involved she made me aware of my own capacity to choose kindness over convenience. She raised my standard of “How much am I willing to trouble myself to help someone?” Since kindness is an attribute of God, more kindness in society means a greater revelation of God in the world.
Conversely, whenever a human being performs an act of meanness, cruelty, avarice, dishonesty, or selfishness, he is hiding God’s presence in this world. “Hillul” comes from the Hebrew word for “empty space”; a Hillul Hashem makes the world seem empty of God.
Every action is a stone thrown into an infinite pond; the ripples it causes go out in ever greater circles, endlessly. Nineteen years ago, an old lady on Jaffa Road put down her bundles to give a beggar a coin. She had no idea she was being observed. Nineteen years later, inspired by that old lady, I walked back five meters and put down my bags in order to give a beggar a coin. I have no idea whether I was being observed…
THE KING’S FEAST
Revealing and hiding the Divine is the essence of the Purim story.
We usually view thePurim story in terms of its mega-heroes: Esther, Mordechai, Achashverosh, and Haman. Yet the sages attribute the catalyst for the decree of doom to the common Jews, who were guilty of Hillul Hashem.
The Book of Esther begins by describing a lavish feast thrown by King Achashverosh for his subjects. Like everyone else, the Jewish citizens of the realm attended. The sages assert that the genocidal decree against the Jews that Haman later enacted (with the approval of the king) was the result of ordinary Jews’ attending the feast.
According to the Talmud, King Achashverosh was celebrating the conclusion of 70 years since the beginning of the exile from Judea. Since the prophet Jeremiah had prophesized that the Babylonian exile would last for 70 years (counting from the destruction of the First Temple, not from the initial stage of the exile), Achashverosh concluded (wrongly) that the victory over the Jews could now be deemed complete and final. For his celebratory feast, he used the sacred vessels from the Temple, and came dressed in the garments of the High Priest.
The sages are quick to point out that kosher food was served to the Jewish citizens. No laws of the Torah were transgressed at the feast. Yet, the sages maintain, the punishment for attending was a decree of extermination from which the Jews only narrowly escaped. Why?
Attendance at King Achashverosh’s feast was a Hillul Hashem. While the Temple and its vessels were meant to sanctify the mundane constituents of the physical world, Achashverosh’s feast did precisely the opposite: By using the sacred vessels for mundane purposes, the party degraded what was holy. The Jews should have responded to this sacrilege by mourning and distancing themselves. Instead, the temptation to attend a party at the palace overcame them. Their attendance was an implicit endorsement of Achashverosh’s worldview, a world in which God was conspicuously absent.
According to the Talmud, Hillul Hashem is the hardest sin to atone for, because, by its very nature, its effect is so widespread that it is virtually impossible to undo the damage. Once the stone has been thrown into the pond, who could possibly stop the ripples?
UNMASKING THE DIVINE
The Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible where God is never mentioned. The sages explain that that epoch, immediately after the destruction of the First Temple, signaled a monumental change in the way God relates to His world. The Temple itself (and before that the Tabernacle) was a medium of Divine revelation. When the Temple was destroyed (because of rampant sin), God entered a mode of hiddenness. In fact, the Divine hand shapes the entire Purim story, but it is concealed in the guise of “coincidence,” “luck,” and the seemingly natural unfolding of events.
“Hiddenness” is an essential characteristic of God in this world. Even the Hebrew word for “world” — “olam” — comes from the root word meaning “hidden.” From the time of the Purim story until today, our challenge in this world is to expose the Divine hiding behind the appearances of our everyday world.
The term for that is “Kiddush Hashem.” Every time we choose generosity, truth or integrity we are revealing God in this world. We are unmasking the Divine.
Every time we choose meanness, pettiness or dishonesty, we camouflage God and add another layer to the Divine disguise. This generates a Hillul Hashem. We create a world where, for ourselves and everyone around us, God is missing.
The climax of the Purim story takes place when Queen Esther, risking her life to do so, invites King Achashverosh and his viceroy, the debonair and courtly Haman, to a private dinner in her quarters. There Queen Esther reveals the plot of genocide against her and her people. The king, outraged, demands to know who is the culprit behind the plot. In one of the most dramatic flourishes in Scripture, Queen Esther points to Haman and exposes his true identity: “A vile man! An enemy! This evil Haman!”
Purim is about hiddenness, shrouded identities, and beguiling appearances. It challenges us to expose the truth, like Queen Esther did. Unlike Queen Esther, however, we point not at the villain, but at the Divine. “Here He is… behind what happened to me today.” “Here He is… behind the beauty of nature.” “Here He is… behind the newspaper headlines.”
At every moment, we can reveal God either by identifying Him or emulating Him. Our models are Queen Esther pointing her finger, and the old lady setting down her bundles. We don’t have to be an illustrious personage to reveal God in this world.
In memory of Yoseph Dov ben Yechiel Michal Aaron.