Be an onion!

About a week ago, I went to the monthly Farbrengen at my friend’s house. I enjoy going there every month for multiple reasons: First, it gives me an opportunity to get together with people that I like a lot, but don’t usually get to see. Second, they usually serve fantastic herring and kigel and some decent whiskey too. Third, I like listening to the rabbi and singing chassidic melodies.

The whole nostalgic experience brings me back to a time, when learning and living Torah was an essential part of my everyday life. Since for quite some years this has not been the case, I enjoy being transported to this world once a month even more so. Of course, some of the things the rabbi says sound strange, or just plain wrong to my modern and liberal ears, but there are almost always some ideas that work their way up into my fed-up, busy brain, start festering there and get a life of their own. One such idea – connected to Purim and the month of Adar – I would like to share with you.

The rabbi told a story of the Lubvitcher’s “Mitteler Rebbe”, son of the “Alter Rebbe”, the Ba’al haTanya. The story likely takes place at the beginning of the 19th century in the rebbe’s home town Liubavichi, in modern day Belarus.

At the time, the Rebbe had already established himself as a major chassidic leader of great spiritual statue. Since he left town only rarely, some of his talmidim were appointed to travel to the surrounding towns and communities in order to spread the rebbe’s torah. One of these disciples was a chassid, who was an exceptionally great speaker. Whenever he came to a town, people would gather around him immediately, to listen to the rebbe’s teachings. And he would convey them so brilliantly and with so much passion, as if they were his own ideas. Soon, people began to view him as big talmid chacham, a genius of Torah and chassidut.

One day, the chassid came back to Liubavich and requested to speak to the rebbe in private. As he came in to the rebbe’s chambers, the man looked very distressed. He said: “Rebbe, all the time I travel through this country and spread your words. But recently people started to view me as a brilliant teacher and I have begun to enjoy the honor they give me. I am beginning to view myself as important, even though we both know that really I am no more than a messenger of your words. Tell me rebbe, how can I overcome these feelings and become the humble man that I am supposed to be?”

The rebbe thought for a while, then looked the chassid straight in the eye and said: “Be an onion and continue to teach chassidut!” The chassid understood and continued to spread the rebbe’s torah until the end of his life.

As every good chassidic story, the rebbe’s advice leaves us perplexed and uncomfortable. What does it mean, to be an onion? Should the man stop washing himself in order to start smelling, so other people would not honor him anymore? This sounds hardly like great advice.

The rabbi at the Farbrengen suggested a different interpretation:

The chassid was bothered by how full of himself he had become. He was troubled by the thought that he was appearing to others and himself as something he really wasn’t. He felt like he was pretending to be like the rebbe and that the mask he was wearing was about to conceal his true self – and even fool himself into believing it.

Now, continued the rabbi, if we look at an onion, we see a full, round fruit. But if we start peeling it we are left just with another layer. And if we continue peeling away, there seems to be always another deeper layer. Layers within layers – this is the essence of the onion.

He went on: Each one of us wears many masks on many layers. More often than not we pretend to be someone that we are not, say things we do not mean and act in ways that we regret. But, he said, not all pretenses are equal. Lying to your spouse about having an affair is obviously a terrible betrayal. But if you come home after a long day of work, tired and exhausted and your children demand you to play with them, hug them and give them attention, should you decline because you don’t feel like it or pretend to be patient and relate to your children with kindness and love?

One difference between these two types of dishonesty is that one is purely selfish while the other one is considered selfless. But this is not all. The selfless act of pretending to be caring and loving even though you are not in the mood, is really not denying your self, but acknowledging that there are different and conflicting selves within you. Freud categorizes them in “id”, “ego” and “super-ego”, but this is by no means a complete picture. Each of us is an ensemble of personas that we develop over our lifetimes. Some live in harmony, some are conflicted. Some we try to suppress, others we aspire to become. Some we are aware of, others are hidden deep within our sub-consciousness and are mostly out of our control.

It it is one of the fundamental aspects of Purim, to acknowledge our own multifacetedness. To realize that we, our friends, family and all human beings are not to be taken on face value, but that we are complex beings, each one consisting of layers upon layers of masks and personalities. On Purim, we are supposed to wear masks, to dress up, to get drunk “עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי” – until we cannot discern anymore between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”. I understand this to mean that we need to break through our simple preconceptions of “cursed” and “blessed” and realize on a deeper level that the world, more often than not, is “ונהפוך הוא” – an “upside-down” place, that defies over-simplistic worldviews.

On Purim we get the opportunity to be in a “what if” kind of world. We get to experiment with alternative versions of ourselves. Nowhere is this more apparent as in Megillat Esther. Each and every major character in this book, pretends to be someone else. Mordechai pretends to be an important statesman in Ahashverosh’s court, even though he is a leader of the exiled Jewish community and longs for their redemption from an oppressive regime. Queen Esther (whose name means “hidden”) is really the Jewish girl Hadassa. According to the tradition, the mighty king Ahashverosh is really an usurper who married the daughter of a Babylonian (not persian) king. Vashti, who actually does have a valid claim to the throne gets herself killed for not wanting to play the game of thrones in an upside-down world. Haman believes himself to be closest to the throne, just before he discovers that he is about to get hanged on the very same tree that he prepared for Mordechai. This is a book full of deceit, intrigue and irony.

But the most pretending character of all is G-D himself, who claims to be present in this world, but hides himself so well, that he is not mentioned in the entire book of Esther even once. The fate of 127 Jewish communities of is sealed by the casting of the lot, the פור – completely at random, while G-D makes himself completely absent.

For me personally, this may be one of the deepest aspects of Purim. When I consider the arguments of modern atheists about the improbability of G-D’s existence I must admit, that they sound quite convincing to me. On a rational basis I would be hard-pressed to find any valid counter arguments to their claims. But if on Purim G-D himself can put on a mask and pretend not to be present, then – עד דלא ידע – I too can put on a mask and pretend that he is.

For one day, let’s all be onions!

Purim Sameach

2 thoughts on “Be an onion!

  1. Manu- First of all, congratulations on the courage and initiative to start a blog. Simple is certainly complex and genius lies in simplicity. The conclusion of your story is somewhat surprising, although not unexpected coming from you. And represents a refreshingly candid departure from traditionally blind, orthodox, unquestioning frummkeit. The art of balancing intellectual honesty with a true commitment to tradition, halacha and genuine Yiddishkeit must be honed. Keep it going!


  2. Manu – I really enjoyed reading your piece. Intellectually stimulating, not taking religious dogma at face value, and incorporating modern world concepts, while also respecting tradition – just my cup of tea. You write really well by the way. Shkoyach!!!


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