By Rabbi Alana Suskin
Parshat Ki Tisa
One theme associated with Purim is everything is upside down. This idea, taken from a phrase in the book of Esther, v’nahafoch hu, is usually presented in a lighthearted way: Purim as a day in which we laugh and play, wear masks, eat sweets. The phrase, after all, comes at the moment in the Purim story when fate is reversed: “The very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened” (v’nahafoch hu).
But in reality, everything being turned upside down isn’t so delightful. The feeling that the world is not as it should be is pervasive. We should live in a world in which children are safe and neighbors help each other out, in which we are all able to provide for our families, and racism and xenophobia are pages in a history book. But we do not.
A passage in the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) describes an incident in which Rav Yosef, son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, became ill and almost died. When he returned to health, his father asked him, “What did you see when you were about to die?” He replied, “I saw an inverted world. The powerful were insignificant, while the insignificant were raised up.” His father said, “My son, you have seen a clear world.”
The rabbis explain that what Rav Yosef saw was in the world to come: The great Rabbi Shmuel sat at the feet of his student, Rav Yehudah, instead of what should be the normal order of the world.
The reason for the inversion was that once, Rav Yehudah was learning from Shmuel, and a woman “came and cried before him” for help. Shmuel ignored her.
Rav Yehudah pointed out to Shmuel that he had an obligation to help her, and Shmuel responded that since another rabbi was the one with political power, she should have cried out to him; it is that other rabbi who would be held responsible by heaven.
The message of nahafoch hu, is then a bit different than the one we usually think of. The clear world is the one in which we speak out — even when we’re the lowly ones. It is this world, the one we live in, which is the true upside-down world.
On Purim, the wicked are ultimately defeated. We have no such guarantees. On Purim, the brave are rewarded, the honest triumph, the weak are saved. That is the clear world. But it is not ours. In our world, the great shift the blame, the weak are taken advantage of and the honest are ignored.
On Purim, though, we are reminded, as Mordechai reminds Esther, “If you do not speak up at this time, then relief and deliverance will rise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish … and who knows whether you did not come to be raised to power just for such a time as this?”
We often talk about the absence of God in the Purim story. But this is another reversal. It is in our world that God is hidden, even while we call on God’s name constantly. But on Purim, we are reminded that there is a world where morals are clear, and that that is the world to which we are commanded to aspire.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is managing editor of Jewschool.com.