Not so long ago Eliot Spitzer was governor of New York and seen by many to be on the fast track to high national office.
David Paterson was treading the political waters of Albany, much liked by those who worked with him, but how many New Yorkers could have named their lieutenant governor?
The dollar was strong and Bear Stearns was one of the biggest firms on Wall Street, a venerable and respected leader of finance for 85 years.
Reading the Megillah today, on the holiday of Purim, one is reminded of this topsy-turvy quality of life. Indeed one of the consistent themes in the ancient story is the concept of v’nehapach hu, loosely translated as inside out and upside down. Events in the narrative take dramatic turns at a dizzying pace, and people’s fortunes rise and fall just as quickly.
Such frenetic change seems to be taking place all around us today in our age of multitasking and 24/7 news cycles, but Purim reminds us that our experiences are not unique.
In the Megillah, Haman is on top of the world, second in command in the Persian empire, and then he is brought down quite suddenly by the very man he sought to destroy. The gallows he builds to kill Mordechai are used for his own execution. The Jewish people, under threat of extinction, are the proud victors in battle against their enemy.
Those are only a few of the twists of the story that still delights us for its dramatic pacing and poetic justice. For me, reading how Haman responds to the king’s request for suggestions on how best to pay tribute to a man of distinction — thinking he is the intended honoree — always evokes a smile. Haman proposes an elaborate parade, and the king agrees; we can only imagine Haman’s expression when he learns the intended recipient of royal gratitude is none other than Mordechai — surely it is a look of shock topped only by the moment Esther reveals to him, and the king who adores her, that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to kill her and her people. The king acts swiftly, and Haman is gone forever.
Ah, sweet revenge.
Another memorable passage of the Megillah blends a message of faith, fate and responsibility, reminding us that none of us is indispensable, no matter how much power we wield. When Mordechai asks Esther, as queen, to put her life on the line to save her people, he notes, in effect: Don’t think you will escape the fate of the Jews if you remain in the palace; if necessary our salvation will come from elsewhere. And perhaps you were chosen queen for this very task.
The fact that the Megillah is the only book in the Bible that does not contain God’s name is meant to remind us that His presence and involvement is always with us, whether we recognize it or not.
Purim is that one day a year we get to act out of character, literally. We dress up in costumes, hiding our true appearance. We are permitted to poke fun, even of our rabbis and teachers (see Purim Spoof, beginning on page 35). And according to tradition, one should imbibe to the point of not knowing the difference between Haman the Wicked and Mordechai the Good — though one would hope this mitzvah would be taken more figuratively than literally, especially when applied to young people.
Still, when else in our age of political correctness do we get the chance to loosen our inhibitions, to vent our frustration at enemies the way we do when we stomp our feet and twirl our groggers at every mention of Haman’s name in the reading of the Megillah?
Purim is an annual day of catharsis, healthy for the mind and soul. It can be a time for reflection as well. Part of the concept of v’nehapech hu is to look at things from a different perspective, to go inside ourselves and question and challenge our assumptions so that we emerge with fresh insights.
Surely Purim teaches us the need for balance in our lives: Go crazy for a day, but come back recharged to fulfill the tasks required of us. Appreciate that life can change in an instant — as it did for the characters in the Megillah and continues to do so today — and make sure the people we love know how we feel about them, every day.
One of my favorite stories is of the wise king who had a ring inscribed with three words to maintain his emotional equilibrium, reminding him not to gloat when life was sweet and to avoid despair when he was unhappy: “Gam zeh ya’avor,” it read, “This, too, shall pass.”
It’s a timely lesson this week for those brought low, be it a former governor or Wall Street tycoon or child in a Sderot bomb shelter. And it’s a marker for those tempted to revel in the humiliation of others. This, too, shall pass.
This Purim let us join in common cause for the safekeeping of our people, wherever they are, so that we may be blessed to have future generations say of us, as is said of those in Shushan: “For the Jews there was light and happiness, joy and glory.”