There is a folk legend that King Solomon, the wisest person ever to have lived, once posed the following riddle: What can you say to a happy man to make him sad, that will also make a sad man happy?” Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: Gimel, Zayin, Yod. “They stand for ‘gam zeh ya’avor,’ this too, shall pass.”
The primary theme in the Megillah’s tale is a corollary to Solomon’s teaching: v’nahafoch hu. What is true in one moment can, in the blink of an eye, turn upside down. An adored queen can become public enemy number one, like Vashti. A condemned man may one day rise to supreme power, like Mordecai. With a heaping helping of heavy handedness, the Megillah reminds us just how topsy-turvy the world can be. No wonder breaking the regular “rules” of decorum is the rule on Purim.
I chuckle to think Tannaim of the Mishnah took the time to warn against thinking v’nahafoch hu applies to reading the Megillah backwards, a practice they ruled does not fulfill one’s obligation on Purim (Megillah 2:1). In classic Hasidic fashion, the Ba’al Shem Tov turned the Sages’ caution inward by adding, “one who reads the Megillah backwards is a person who only reads it in retrospect and neglects to pay attention to how its spirit is alive in his own day.”
In our day, the demands are great and time is short. We need our cars to start, our co-workers to show up, and our bodies to function well because we have a lot to do. It is also true that days will come when the very things on which we depend on will fail. Therefore, we are wise to regularly meet and befriend the Megillah’s living truth that v’nahafoch hu, our human experience is always changing. By slowing down each day, turning our focus inward, we can observe firsthand that restlessness arising one moment might flow into stillness in the next. A niggling muscle ache may, in time, release ever so slightly.
Mark Twain’s advice about the weather in New England is a comforting instruction as we track the climate in our minds and bodies: “If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes.” The more lived awareness we cultivate of the constant unfolding and changing in our inner world, the deeper we learn that we are not condemned by Solomon’s riddle in the outer world. We can both endure sadness and disappointments with confidence that they will pass and savor the joys and successes even knowing they are time-limited.
Within the lived awareness that everything is perpetually unfolding is another powerful recognition in the spirit of Purim: we, ourselves are works in progress. Every moment and each breath is an opportunity to start again, a chance to unmask and reveal a new face, to be in the world in ways that better serve ourselves and others. Every moment of awareness is an opportunity turn ourselves around. Just as Mordecai and Esther turned the Jewish people’s mourning and grief into light and joy, happiness and honor, so may we find our way to do the same in our lives and in our day.