By Alanna Apfel
One of the things that I appreciate most about Judaism is that with each yom tov, we have the opportunity to take time and reflect on our lives. With Purim being the anniversary that marks the end of one year in this new post-COVID-19 reality, I find it to be an especially apt time to pause and ask myself: where am I tracking in my life, in my relationship with myself, my children, and family, and with G-d?
Each yom tov has unique themes, messages, and meaning available for us to tap into, and Purim is no exception. Hester panim, G-d’s concealment and revelation, v’nahafoch hu, a celebration of things getting turned upside down, and Esther’s heroic role in the Purim story and our nation’s salvation are key themes of the holiday. As children we are enamored by Queen Esther, our heroine, our very own Persian Jewish princess. It is no wonder we are taken in by the story and we ignore the implausibility of a Jewish orphan girl being chosen to be queen of a global empire of 127 countries, placed in the very position to save her nation from decreed annihilation. As adults, we understand that life is more complex, that this is not a traditional fairy tale of a beloved princess and that coincidence is G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.
But as we take a closer look, Esther’s integral role in the Purim story takes on new light, one deeper than her external heroism and bravery in facing evil Haman and King Achashverosh. Queen Esther’s story is one of personal transformation and inner strength, a story that resonates today, despite the 2,000 years that have passed since Esther overturned Haman’s evil decree.
When reading Megillat Esther, a Torah scholar will be reminded of another Biblical story from many, many years prior, the story of Yosef HaTzaddik. When one compares the texts side by side, the similarities between the two stories are astounding. The more noticeable parallels are the descriptions of Pharaoh’s and Achashverosh’s parties, the texts’ descriptions of Yosef and Esther as “yefeh toar v’yafeh mareeh,” the language used to describe Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman and Yosef’s refusal to oblige Potifar’s wife, the descriptions of Pharaoh’s and Achashverosh’s dreams, and Pharaoh’s and Achashverosh’s removal of their rings and appointing of Yosef and Mordechai as their advisors.
Perhaps the most striking parallel is Esther’s response to Mordechai’s request that she approach Achashverosh immediately, “k’asher avaditi avaditi” (if I perish, I perish) and Yaakov’s resigned agreement to let Yehuda take Binyamin back to Egypt, “k’asher shacholti shachalti” (as I have been bereaved so shall I be bereaved). These parallels in the texts are not a coincidence—when Mordechai penned the Purim Megillah thousands of years after Yosef lived, he used specific language and words to echo the story of Yosef in the Purim Megillah. The question is why.
Yosef, whose mother died in childbirth, was deeply hated by his brothers, thrown into a pit with scorpions and snakes where he overheard his brothers’ plot to kill him, saved from death by one loyal brother, sold into slavery to various merchant traders (who all spoke different languages!) and transported to Egypt, where he found himself alone in a foreign land, sought after by his slave owner’s wife and, in not giving into temptation, thrown into an Egyptian jail. When reading these passages, do we pause and put ourselves in Yosef’s shoes and take in the full extent of Yosef’s experience? I imagine when Yosef was sold at age 17, he believed he would never see his father or brother again. And to be put in this position by his own brothers? The pain, suffering, and betrayal run deep.
Esther was similarly orphaned at a young age, adopted and raised by her uncle, and forced to marry a gentile, anti-Semitic king, who had killed his prior wife for lack of obedience. How utterly alone and terrified must Esther have felt in the palace? Having been instructed by her cousin Mordechai to not share her Jewish identity with anyone in the palace, Esther faced isolation on a very deep level and pressure in trying win over Achashverosh and overturn his most trusted advisor’s decree to save her people.
How did Yosef and Esther rise above these hopeless situations, these seemingly insurmountable challenges, and find the inner strength to prevail? What enables them to each rise above the immense challenges they faced and prevail against all human odds? The answer is profound: Esther and Yosef chose to be the creators of their own reality. They chose to be survivors, and not victims, of their circumstances.
Yosef is cast into a foreign jail, with no one to save him. The pasuk states, “v’ayehi sham b’veit hasohar,” and he remained there in the prison. A truly hopeless situation. But in the next three pesukim, Yosef’s life experiences changes and transforms from the depths of despair and hopelessness to the destiny of becoming the viceroy to the king of Egypt—the very position that enables him to save his brothers and his people from international famine. The verses begin with three pivotal words: “Vayehi Hashem et Yosef,” and Hashem was with Yosef…and whatever he did Hashem made successful.
A literal “v’nafoch hu.”
In the pesukim that follow, Yosef approaches the cupbearer and baker one morning in jail after noticing that they are despairing and asks them why they feel hopeless. And so begins Yosef’s interpretation of dreams and his path to the palace. In all his struggles, Yosef does not identify as a victim. A person living with a victim mentality does not notice another’s despair; a person who identifies as a victim is consumed by his own self-pity and suffering.
Esther shows the same strength of character when Mordechai instructs her to go to the king and petition him to save her people. Esther understands that to approach the king without being summoned would mean risking death. Like Yosef, Esther identifies as a survivor, not as a victim, and she rises above her own self-preservation and agrees to petition the king with the powerful words, “V’kaasher avadity, avaditity,” if I perish, I perish.
Looking back at Yosef’s and Esther’s stories, we can see that the hardships they faced prepared them to achieve greatness. Out of the greatest depths of pain came even greater heights. In reading their stories, we too can understand that our lives can change, transform, and turn upside down in an instant. V’nahafoch hu.
This transformation occurs in the very moment that we decide no matter how difficult the circumstances we face, we create our own life experience. Our circumstances do not dictate our life experience. This shift often occurs in the moments of our greatest pain and suffering—at the very point when all feels impossible. In that moment we make a choice, to let go and let G-d.
There are times when the only thing we can do to gain control of a situation is to realize that we are doing all that is humanly possible, stop worrying about the “how,” pass the torch to G-d, and ask Him to make the impossible happen. When we genuinely believe G-d can bring us a miracle and we are deserving of it, we make the space for it to happen. In relinquishing our control to a higher power, we realize that all along, life has been, and continues to be, happening for us and not to us.
This is the hester panim of the Purim story; G-d is there and has been there at every step, every challenge and in every moment of salvation. And like Yosef and Esther, when we realize that G-d is with us in our most challenging experiences, we open the door to salvation and allow it to manifest. After that moment, life will never be the same. From prisoner to viceroy. From defeated to victor. V’nahafoch hu.
The realization that we are not victims of our circumstances is the lesson that Yosef teaches us and that Mordechai echoes in his precise writing of the Megillah. The Megillah was the last book to be recorded in the Canon by the chachamim—and how apropos. Shedding our victim identity is the very message we need to carry with us through our exile as a nation and, on a micro level, through our personal “galus”—from hopelessness and despair to emotional freedom.
As we begin a second year among COVID-19, I invite you to join me in taking the lesson of Esther and Yosef to heart, to look within and thoughtfully consider the ways that we can be the creators of our own realities this coming year, rather than the victims of our life circumstances. If we can do this, we gift ourselves the greatest gift of all—the gift of inner salvation and a life free from the pain caused by the external conditions over which we have no control. When we identify as creators, we begin to realize that we are truly blessed.
Alanna Apfel is the founder and patient advocate at AA Insurance Advocacy, which helps therapy patients, individuals, couples, and children, save thousands of dollars annually on their out of network mental health therapy bills. In the months that AA Insurance Advocacy has been advocating on behalf of patients, clients have collected anywhere from $5,000 to $45,000 a year in reimbursements, depending on the cost and frequency of therapy. For further information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.