Lighting the Light Within

One of the most iconic movie scenes in my memory is when Darth Vader removes his helmet at the end of Return of the Jedi. Behind the black hardened exterior we witness a disfigured and defeated man who struggles to breathe. Having removed his mask, he seems compassionate and sad at his imminent death, and only then can he express his deepest vulnerability – “Luke, I am your father.” No matter how far down the path of evil he had gone, Darth Vader still maintained a glimmer of light and goodness within.

Tomorrow night we will do the opposite of Vader, we will assume masks and joyfully celebrate the festival of Purim. One reason we do this is to imitate Mordecai whom Haman dressed up in the kings robes as a reward for his loyalty to the King. We also dress up because Esther’s name means hidden – l’hastir, an allusion to the fact that Esther hides her Jewish identity from her husband the King until, at a moment of strength and desperation, she reveals her Judaism in order to save her people from annihilation. On Purim we only wear our masks for one night, and though we might be able to hide in those few hours, we quickly return to who we are. However, as our communities have become more and more fractured by differing ideas of politics, we have taken to donning the mask of social media and the internet to embolden ourselves and reveal a darker side than might lurk behind the screen.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the dreaded comments section of news sites have become places where people can hide behind the veil of electrons while saying and acting worse than they ever would do in a face to face conversation. As we polarize ourselves more and more it seems that the comments only grow more hateful. While reading information that supports our opinions, our masks grow tighter and tighter, harder to remove when we need to reveal our compassionate selves to the world.

No matter how we obscure ourselves, behind a physical mask or social media, we must always attempt to nurture the flame of goodness and decency within ourselves and others. We must prevent ourselves from falling victims to our yeitzer ha-ra, our evil inclination. We call tonight Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembrance when we think about those who have done harm to the Jewish people. “Do not forget Amalek,” God commands us[1]. Amalek attacked the Israelites from the rear, hurting the most vulnerable in our community in an attempt to defeat us in battle. We work so hard to not forget to forget out the name of Amalek that we actually blot out his name every time we begin writing in our Torah. In addition to Amalek, as we prepare to celebrate Purim tomorrow we also recall Haman, [pause for booing] who also attempted to eliminate the Jews. We can blot out Amalek’s name on a piece of paper and we can boo the name of Haman [pause for booing], but we can only make change in our world by being kind people and setting an example for all people to become a light to the nations.

In the world of Torah, where no coincidences exist, we open our reading this evening in Exodus with the commandment to light the ner tamid, the eternal flame. We often fulfil this commandment by placing a light above the aron kodesh, the ark into which we place our Torah scrolls. Yet our sages disagree as to whether this means that a light must be always burning or if we should be translating tamid as regularly. Rashi argues that we must light this light each day, even perhaps twice a day. In addition to actual light, we can also interpret this verse to mean that every day we must strive to fan the flames of goodness within ourselves by taking off our masks and doing good deeds, acts of g’milut chasadim.

We can help grow our inner lights by helping the most vulnerable in our community, in contrast to Amalek and Haman [pause for booing]. In the book of Esther, we are instructed to fulfil the obligation of matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor each year on Purim.[2] Every person is supposed to contribute at least the cost of a meal to those who are in need. Perhaps this is a good time to give to Jewish Family Services or Mazon, the Jewish hunger relief organization. Engaging in tzedakah, whether by donating our monetary resources or our time, as so many did for Family Promise, helps those in need and helps us to appreciate the bounty that we have.

When we examine the heroes of our tradition, Moses, Esther, or even Luke Skywalker, we realize that they had to be convinced to act; God argued with Moses to free his people, Mordechai implored Esther to save her people, and Obi-Wan convinced Luke that he had to use the force. An entire section of our Tanakh, the Prophets, is dedicated to convincing the people to be kind to one another. We all need convincing sometimes to do the right thing, to take care of each other. Our texts, traditions and community can help encourage us to remove our masks behind which we hide and confront the world face-to-face, with compassion and warmth. As we enter into Purim may we all find ways to light our lights constantly and regularly, [take out light saber], and may the force be with you!

[1] Deut 27:14

[2] Esther 9:22