Hidden Identities: Esther, Sharansky, and Us

With the advent of Adar Sheni we say,” Mi Sh’Nichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– as soon as Adar has entered, we increase in happiness.” (Taanit 29a) It is hard to really get into the happy mood right now. It is impossible not be be appalled by violence in Ukraine, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, and terrified by the prospects of World War III.

With Adar comes Purim and with Purim comes Esther. There in her eponymous book we are introduced to her, “And [Mordechai] had raised Hadassah, she is Esther . . .”(Esther 2:7) Why did she have two names?

The name Hadassah is derived from the Hebrew word hadas הדס , a myrtle tree from the Myrtaceae family. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance. The Talmud explains why Queen Esther was also called Hadassah:

Why was she called Hadassah? Because the righteous are called myrtles. As it states (Zechariah 1:8), “And he was standing among the myrtles [the righteous prophets Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah].”

Megillah 13a

The sages in the Midrash take this one step further:

Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman.

Esther Rabbah 6:5.

According to Kabbalah, each of her names corresponds to a different spiritual level. The name Hadassah represents righteousness. As such, it corresponds to a heavenly sphere representing God’s infinitude. The name Esther -אסתר is derived from the Hebrew word hester-הסתר, which means “hiddenness,” and corresponds to a spiritual plane representing hidden Godliness (Deuteronomy 20:19). Interestingly, she is referred to by both names—seemingly opposites. How do we understand these identities? Why is the book called Megilat Esther and not Megilat Hadassah?

I was thinking about these questions recently when reading this amazing story about Nathan Sharansky. He was speaking this past week at the Sheva Brachot of Yossi and Chana Dickstien’s wedding. Yossi lost both his parents and brother, to a terrorist attack when he was just seven years old). Sharansky shared the following to those at the Simcha:

When I grew up in Ukraine in the city of Donetsk, there were people of various nationalities living there. Their ID certificates had the word ‘Russian’, ‘Ukraine’, ‘Georgian’, ‘Kozaki”, it wasn’t that important and there wasn’t much of a difference. One thing was important – if it had the word ‘Jewish’ written on it, that would be as if you had some disease. We knew nothing about Judaism, except antisemitism and hatred towards us.  That’s why no one tried to replace the word ‘Russian’ or the word ‘Ukraine’, in order to get accepted to the university.  But if it you had the word ‘Jewish’ on your ID papers and you could manage to change that, your chance of getting accepted was so much higher. I was reminded of this while watching this week how thousands of people are standing at the borders, trying to escape the tragedy in Ukraine. They stand there day and night, and there’s only one word today that can help them get out: “Jewish”. If you are a Jew – there are Jews outside who care for you, there is someone on the other side of the border looking for you, your chance of getting out is so much higher. The world I knew has been turned upside down. When I was a child ‘Jewish’ was an extraordinary bad word, no one was jealous of us! Today at the border of Ukraine, ‘Jewish’ is an extraordinary word for good, it describes people who have somewhere to go and there’s an entire nation – their family, waiting for them outside.

Sharansky and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, 19 September 2000

This resonates with something the Elie Wiesel. wrote in Jews of Silence in 1965 when he wrote, “In Russia they hated the Jews because they were not Russian enough, and in the other Soviet states they hated the Jews because they were too Russian.”( from memory so might not be precise) Our identities have always made us feel different or scorned, but this seems to be a new moment of safety and pride.

Reading Sharansky’s quote, I cried seeing how this is really a time when, like Purim, it is nahafochu– things are topsy-turvy. What was once a hidden identity and even shame, was overturned to become a source of pride or even salvation. How do we think about Esther’s and Sharansky’s hidden Jewish identities? In the Jews of Silence Wiesel wrote, “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.” How will we show up with our hidden identities to meet this moment? Like the Megilah being called after Esther, it is our choice if we come out like Hadassah to do the right thing.

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