As we approach the holiday of Purim, which starts the night of Feb. 28, there is a thought I’d like to offer. We know the story inside out, but let me suggest a slight spin.
Esther makes it from the Jewish hood to the Persian monarchy without revealing her religious identity. The palace intrigue proceeds, the Hamanic plot unfolds, while all along Esther’s faith is kept secret.
Only when it becomes clear that she must save her people does she confess her Jewish roots to her husband, the king. Esther’s strategic spiritual concealment, I believe, makes her the first Marrano — the first Jew who lives publicly as a gentile and privately as a loyal member of the tribe.
Of course, we are formally introduced to this concept of crypto-Jew during the Spanish Inquisition, when thousands of our mishpacha wore the cross during the day and davened Ma’ariv behind pulled curtains at night. It was a strategy of survival that for a time enabled Jews to have their kugel and eat it too.
But this scheme of religious deception is not confined to the harsh days of Torquemada and his torturing minions.
I recall a lovely lady who once shared with me her sad need to hide her Jewish commitment and observance when dating Jewish men. When her suitors discovered that she observed Shabbos and kashrut, they would have nothing to do with her.
In desperation, to have a social life, she professed being a vegan and was, coincidentally, busy with family matters every Friday night. She was a latter-day Marrano, hiding her authentic identity from shallow co-religionists.
Beyond the schizophrenic trickery of faith, we see the need to Marrano-ize in our present climate of political polarity and intolerance.
There is apprehension in expressing fidelities or opinions or praise for fear of condemnation or social Siberia. Respectful, energetic dialogue and robust debate have been stifled as we walk among each other as Marranos, fearful of engagement. An unhealthy dread rattles dissent.
My heart breaks for those who fear coming out and proclaiming with pride whom they love and who they truly are. Instead, they cower and pretend to be what they are not.
They live in the fog, playing a role achingly uncomfortable, needing to explode. Their truth is concealed from friends and family.
On the down low, they tremble, exhausted, ripped in two with a secret they are desperate to reveal. They are Marranos, eager to shed the deception and anxious to dance in the sunlight.
I wonder if the opening letters of marriage and Marrano have an etymological link or bonded history reflecting not pure, marital bliss but caution, even in what should be the ultimate partnership.
The utterance of “I do” should catapult two souls into an unparalleled realm of veracity and intimacy, but for many the honeymoon is the start of a wary love, a tiptoeing romance and a protective reticence. Husbands and wives become Marranos shuffling past each other in hallways, piling up anniversaries, restricting passion and sublime honesty to wishful dreams.
Purim is a charming festival of triumph. It is marked by groggers, shalach manot, wicked, wicked men, and more. But perhaps the deeper message, the Esther message that eclipses the frivolity of this day, is right before our eyes.
If life is to have serious meaning, relationships any depth and identity any liberation, we dare not wear masks and journey Marronically through our days.
We are to shed our costumes and false identities. We are to gaze, unobstructed, into the eyes of our companions, expose our true essence and celebrate our genuine spirit.
Esther taught us not only how to defy an empire, but also how to conquer self. Her gift is precious.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis is part of the leadership at Congregation Etz Chaim.