Today we entered Adar II, the month of Purim. For many, Purim is a pediatric holiday of cute costumes, groggers (noisemakers), and hamantaschen—however, underneath the levity are some powerful lessons for all.
One day a year we are invited into a topsy turvy existence of our own making, putting on masks and reveling in the hidden (not that we haven’t been wearing masks for two years already!). Examples abound: Instead of drinking in moderation, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) teaches that a person is supposed to drink alcohol “until we don’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed be Mordechai,” the Megillah has no mention of God’s name in it, and our fate is put in the hands of a lottery. The origins of this notion of everything being upside down are derived from Megillat Esther, the story of Esther, itself:
וּבִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ הוּא־חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִגִּיעַ דְּבַר־הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ לְהֵעָשׂוֹת בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר שִׂבְּרוּ אֹיְבֵי הַיְּהוּדִים לִשְׁלוֹט בָּהֶם וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁלְטוּ הַיְּהוּדִים הֵמָּה בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם
And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (Esther 9:1)
While we often use וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ ה֔וּא, “The opposite happened,” to speak of Purim and its absurdity, in the Megillah it really means “the unexpected scenario came to be”: The Jewish girl, Esther, reluctantly rises to become royalty—only to be told by her uncle, Mordechai, that that was not the end of the story for her. “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a moment,” he tells her (Esther 4:14). And she does find her purpose. She becomes the unlikely heroine, and the day the Jews were to be executed was instead the day they rose in triumph. A day of fasting and mourning turned into a day of joy and festivity.
I have been holding close this idea of the “opposite happened” in these days of deep uncertainty, fear, and outrage as a Russian dictator and his military continue a vicious invasion on the sovereign and democratic nation of Ukraine. How much history of our own people has unfolded on this land? Apart from those who left Ukraine prior to World War II, like my own great grandparents, an estimated 1 million Jews were murdered there during the Holocaust—including one family that bore four sons, three of whom were murdered by the Nazis. One son remained, and his grandson became the democratically elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Perhaps he has attained this royal position for such a moment.
In his recent speech to the European Union, President Zelensky said:
Our people are very much motivated. Very much so. We are fighting for our rights. For our freedoms. For life. For our life. And now, we’re fighting for survival. And this is the highest of our motivation. But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe. I believe that today we are showing everybody that’s exactly what we are.
With his bravery and clarity, his moral compass and his unexpected leadership, President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people have stood up for themselves far more than anyone had imagined. They have also won the hearts of the Western world—and unified it, at that. As the days progress it is unclear where the path ahead will lead. But we pray amidst a topsy turvy world that the unexpected scenario will come to be. That democracy, justice, and peace will prevail over totalitarianism, immorality, and demagoguery. That no more lives will be lost to senseless violence. That the Ukrainian people will be safe and preserve their independence.
Most interestingly, the same word verb נַהֲפ֣וֹךְ (the opposite happened) that is used in the Megillah is also used in a teaching from Avot D’Rabbi Natan 24:4:
אדם שיש בו מעשים טובים ולמד תורה הרבה דומה לכוס שיש לו פיספס שכיון שמניח אותו מידו אע”פ שנהפך על צידו אין נשפך כל מה שיש בו
A person who has done good deeds and has learned a lot of Torah is like a cup with a flat base. When one sets it down, even if it is knocked over, not all of its contents will spill.
In this use, נהפך means “knocked over.” But even in the fall, there is a stability that keeps its essence, because it is grounded in what is right and holy, in good deeds and Torah wisdom.
In the uncertainty of our own personal lives and in the upside-down world we are living in, we must never give up hope that, even against all odds, righteousness and justice can prevail. That even amidst the fear and despair, we might have been put on this earth to serve our purpose at this very moment, and that even if we fall, pursuing a holy life amidst holy community will help carry us through.
Read this powerful piece on the story of President Zelensky.