Purim is a holiday that celebrates the power of secrets and their revelation. The rabbis of the Talmud mark Purim explicitly as the festival of masks–which calls for nothing less than an unmasking of ourselves and ultimately, of God. This is the one time of the year when drinking a bit too much is a “mitzvah” because, in their words, nichnas yayin-yatza sod, “the wine goes in and the secrets come out.”
The story begins with all its characters in lavish concealment. Each of them manages a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that if revealed would seem to undo them. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward and it is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.
King Achashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and because she refuses to take off her royal robes she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up (or in this case down) as something she is not. Achashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a fool and a degenerate, a common lout dressed up in royal robes. He is also terribly insecure, anxious to build his political support and fearful of being challenged or manipulated.
Esther and Mordechai are closeted Jews. Mordechai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court, but he does not flaunt his Jewish identity. Indeed, it is perhaps for this very reason that he warns Esther not to reveal hers. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Haman, like the king, he rises to power with little, if any, merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordechai.
The turn in the plot occurs when Mordechai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows he understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordechai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordechai’s secret is found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to revenge himself of Mordechai and Mordechai’s people.
Mordechai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sackcloth, a bold and public expression of his internal state of affairs no longer concealed in beautiful robes. Mordechai’s self-expression sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Achashverosh.
It is, however, Esther’s moment of courage that carries the most dramatic turn of the story. She is at first resistant. Her coming to the king uninvited is mortally dangerous. Moreover, even if he is willing to hear her out, she has no reason to think that he will side with her against Haman. Her uncle presses her not to try to save herself by passing. Esther reveals her secret deftly while aware of all the risks and uncertain of the outcomes.
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a Midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we conceal and reveal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.
But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways we are all like Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordechai teach us something about the search for wholeness? At the end of the story, all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in selfִexpression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordechai the king’s most trusted counselor. Even Achashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these fuller identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.
The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace Mordechai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later he implores her to do so. It seems that there is a right and wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self–revelations but by our careful nurturing of a private world.
As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses his disguise for singularly destructive ends and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch revealing more than an urge for power. Mordechai is revealed by his principles; Haman by his hubris and his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of oneself over another. Instead, there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.
The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a God in costume who dances in shadows, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. The name of Esther in Hebrew means, “I will hide,” which is nothing less than God’s invitation to us to start looking for the divine presence beneath the obvious surface of things.
We too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. Mordechai knows, as he first shares with Esther, that there is a time for self-protective discretion. The closet can also be a womb in which one gestates. Later Mordecai discovers that the evasiveness of the closet does not allow for authenticity. Eventually, one is called to stand for one’s inner truths, for principle, or for one’s people, and then we should witness undaunted, loud and proud and sure.
For more than a decade I’ve been pushing the idea of marking Purim as the “Jewish Coming Out Day.” It may be that Taanit Esther (thefast day before Purim) is the right moment for orchestrating one’s coming out. A fast day may seem a bit austere but the day possesses a potent acknowledgment of the fears and the dangers of those living in the closet and holds a place for the risk and anxiety of coming-out. Fastingcan be a useful way to center oneself, to hone spiritual energies and to build a sense of clarity.
Sincethe average age of coming-out has dropped to 16 in the US, increasingly the circumstances of coming out are adolescent. Helping to ease the way of these teens –- without pressuring them to come-out before they are ready – is what Esther’s fasting entourage did for her. We often come out incrementally to expanding circles. The fastcould be an ideal time to draw around us those whose support we already have, as we to prepare to share more expansively to the next circle. If so, then just before the reveling of Purim begins we could chose consciously to widen the inner circle toward the next ring of family and friends that we wish to include.
Some may prefer to let Purim’s carnival atmosphere to push them out of the shadows. The public chanting of the book of Esther amid congregants in costume, the memory of oppressionovercome withnoisey groggers, the multiple intricate plots, secrets, discovered anddramatically revealed…and of course…the outing, one-by-one, of all the characters can be a perfect backdrop.
But whether in the last moments of the fast or amid the campy celebration during the day, this prayerful, playful, redemptive call for wholeness, is an open invitation to gay Jews everywhere.
Admittedly, life doesn’t readily obey holiday calendars. Coming out should happen when the time is right. But the Megillah sets the stage, if not necessarily the timing, for acknowledging that many of us have lived Marrano lives for far too long. Purim encourages hidden gay Jews everywhere to take on the modest courage of Esther and the principled conviction of Mordechai. It calls upon our communities, like Shushan of old, to embrace all our newly self-affirming Esthers and Mordechais, most of them teenagers, as they take off their masks, and proudly stand up, turning inside – out.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg