Part 1: Kingship and Theology in the Purim Story

Of all the major characters of the Purim story, the megillah, the most ambiguous is King Achashveirosh.

On the one hand, he is the only character who features throughout the story. Everything revolves around the king. In fact, some scribes have the custom to begin every column in the megillah with the word hamelech, “the king.” He is there in the very first verse just as he is there in the very last. (As we will soon see, it is no coincidence that in our daily prayers we say something similar about G‑d, “You are the first, You are the last.”)

"What are we to make of this enmeshing of the divine with the distorted image of the despotic drunkard who reigned in Shushan?"

On the other hand, the king actually plays a rather passive role. He doesn’t seem to act intentionally, but is easily persuaded by those around him. At the outset, he drunkenly follows the advice of his ministers to execute Queen Vashti. Then he regrets it. Later he endorses Haman’s plan to exterminate the Jews, but backtracks when his new queen, Esther, reveals her Jewish identity and pleads on behalf of her people.

In the long history of Jews reading the megillah and interpreting its meanings, the ambiguous figure of the king has often been associated with an even more mysterious ambiguity. What role does G‑d play in this story?

This is one of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and we read it each year as a religious obligation. Yet G‑d isn’t mentioned. Not even once.1

The Zohar—the most influential of Jewish mystical texts—tells us that each time the word hamelech is used without the name Achashveirosh appended, it should be read as a reference to G‑d. Thus the verse “and Esther stood in the inner courtyard of the king before the king’s house” (Esther 5:1) means that Esther stood in prayer before the house of G‑d, the Holy Sanctuary, whither the prayers of all Jews must be directed.2

A carnivalesque plot twist indeed! All the trappings of earthly sovereignty are turned inside-out and their spiritual significance is unmasked. The celestial king is thereby rendered as omnipresent in this story as the earthly King Achashveirosh. (In fact, some say that the name Achashveirosh is a play on a Hebrew phrase that references G‑d’s omnipotence and omnipresence: “achrit vereishit shelo”—“the end and the beginning are His.”3)

And yet this seems to resolve nothing! What are we to make of this enmeshing of the divine with the distorted image of the despotic drunkard who reigned in Shushan? Why is “the king” a fitting pseudonym for G‑d?

In truth, this deepens a more general question: Why does the traditional Jewish prayer liturgy so frequently refer to G‑d as “king”? What is the nature of sovereignty? What is its theological and cosmological significance?

Part 2: The Cosmic Masquerade of Divine Kingship

In Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s definitive treatise on how G‑d creates the world (Shaar Hayichud Veha’emunah) he explains that malchut (“kingship”) entails sovereignty over a populace who are “separate, distant and far from the station of the sovereign. For even if he had very many sons the term sovereignty could not be applied [to his authority] over them … Rather, the splendor of the king depends specifically on the throng of the populace.” Therefore, he continues, it is specifically G‑d’s manifestation as “sovereign of all the earth” (Psalms 97:5) that creates and sustains the world, “that it shall be a world as it is now … a distinctly independent entity … [with] the dimensions of space and time specifically.”4

The notion of sovereignty, in other words, illustrates a very particular kind of relationship, one that depends most fundamentally on distance rather than intimacy.

If G‑d’s true self, in all its intimate infinitude, would be openly revealed, nothing could retain any sense of independent or finite being. All would be subsumed and submerged within the all-encompassing radiance of the infinite G‑d.

The splendor of sovereignty, however, is synonymous with transcendence. A powerful king certainly shapes the lives of each citizen in profound ways, but most of those citizens will never see the king in person. As a person, the king is utterly unapproachable, utterly unknown, utterly unknowable. And that is the source of sovereign power.

But here’s a twist: Unlike a human king, the Divine King actually is infinite and all-encompassing. A mortal king, one who is not truly transcendent, can hide himself behind stone walls and armed guards. But the One who is truly infinite and all-encompassing is found within everything—even within the stones, the guards, and whatever else masks “The King” from the populace. Nothing escapes the intimate presence of G‑d. All things are therein encompassed.5

In the case of the Divine King, the crucial element of distance must therefore be illusionary. A masquerade. G‑d hides in plain sight. It appears as if the natural world is an external realm over which G‑d merely exercises dominion. In truth, however, the natural world is itself a manifestation of The King’s own self.

"Creation depends on the cosmic masquerade of divine kingship."

Creation depends on the cosmic masquerade of divine kingship.

But we mustn’t mistakenly think that either divine sovereignty or the existence of the world is therefore an illusion.6 As one scholar has put it, we are not speaking here of “the illusion of reality” but rather of “the reality of illusion.”7 The illusion of divine absence is the substance out of which the concrete reality of the created cosmos is built.8

In fact, the cosmic masquerade is endowed with the ultimate reality of divine being. But to grasp why this is so, we first need to submerge ourselves—even more deeply—in the inside-out theology of Purim.

Part 3: Turning Theology Inside-Out

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that there are two general forms in which G‑d is manifest: 1) The unfolding of the divine within the finite bounds of nature; in the language of the kabbalists “the light that fills all worlds” (memala kol almin / shem adnut). This is the glory of G‑d as reflected in all the multivarious wonders of creation, or—on a deeper level—in the edifying wisdom of G‑d as revealed in the Torah. 2) The infinite radiance of G‑d that far transcends the bounds of nature; in the language of the kabbalists “the light that transcends all worlds” (sovev kol almin / shem havayah). This is the glory of G‑d that utterly exceeds anything that can be reflected in worldly wonders, and whose all-encompassing absoluteness and unity is equally lost on the most celestial revelation of divine wisdom as on the lowest blade of grass.9

But the crucial point is that these two forms of divine manifestation—“the light that fills all worlds” and “the light that transcends all worlds”—are fundamentally intertwined and inseparable.

How so?

If G‑d is unfolded within the finite bounds of nature, we cannot escape the conclusion that the infinite and transcendent radiance of G‑d is concealed within those bounds. In kabbalistic language this is referred to as the interlacing of divine transcendence within divine sovereignty (shiluv shem havayah beshem adnut). Likewise, if G‑d’s transcendent radiance is truly infinite it must also encompass every possible iteration of finitude and nature. In kabbalistic language this is referred to as the interlacing of divine sovereignty within divine transcendence (shiluv shem adnut beshem havayah).10

So we have a double interweaving. G‑d is within the natural world and the the natural world is within G‑d. Or as another scholar once wrote: “Existence is absorbed in the Infinite and the Infinite is expressed in existence.”11

With this in mind, we can think of the cosmic masquerade—upon which creation depends—as a transformational act in which these two forms of divine manifestation are turned inside-out:

"Creation turns the interlacing of G‑d and nature inside out."

Prior to creation, as the kabbalists write, “The Infinite Light filled all.”12 This means that divine transcendence and infinitude are foregrounded as the exterior face of G‑d; all the permutations of finitude, form and nature are concealed therein.

But then—as the Zohar comments on the first word of the Torah, bereishit—“at the outset of rule of the King, He engraved engravings in supernal luster.”13 This is the primordial awakening of divine sovereignty, and it initiates the cosmological process that brings finitude and form to the fore. They now emerge as the exterior facade of reality, as the natural world, within which divine transcendence and infinitude are concealed.

Creation turns the interlacing of G‑d and nature inside out: The transcendence and infinitude of the one G‑d, which was previously openly manifest—“outside”—is now concealed “inside” the finite structures of created existence. The multifariousness of nature—which was previously an indiscernible capacity “within” G‑d’s infinite radiance—is now openly manifest, “outside.”14

Part 4: The Mystical Significance of Achashveirosh’s Cloak

The plot of this masquerade thickens in one of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi‘s most famous—and most mind-bending—Purim teachings.15

Here the focus is on Achashveirosh’s “sovereign cloak” (levush malchut). In a fit of egotistic over-eagerness, the evil vizier Haman suggests that Achashveirosh’s coronation robe be worn by “the man whom the king wishes to honor” (i.e. himself). Haman doesn’t stop there; he also has designs on “the horse upon which the king rode, and the sovereign crown that was placed upon his head.” (Esther 6:7.)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman equates the “sovereign cloak” with the cloak of G‑d, of which the Psalmist wrote, “The Lord has reigned; He has cloaked Himself with majesty” (Psalms 93: 1), meaning that “G‑d cloaked Himself in majesty to become king of the world.” Likewise, the “sovereign crown” is equated with the supernal diadem with which G‑d was crowned on the day upon which the Jewish people were given the Torah.16 We’ll come back to this later. But first, what’s the significance of G‑d’s cloak of majesty?

The conventional understanding would be that the majesty of G‑d-as-Creator, or G‑d-as-King, is merely a pale reflection of G‑d’s truly infinite magnificence. Accordingly, the “sovereign cloak” is more like a concealing veil than a resplendent robe that fittingly accentuates G‑d’s true glory. But in this teaching Rabbi Schneur Zalman argues that the opposite is true. The veil of creation discloses the true transcendence of G‑d’s self; the essence that was previously concealed within the infinite radiance now comes to the fore.17

But why would ambiguity, darkness, and concealment be the most fitting prisms through which truth can be grasped? Isn’t this completely counterintuitive? Why can the essence of divine being only be glimpsed when G‑d dons the cloak of royal masquerade?

In a more ideal or spiritual world, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, it would be easier to fall into the epistemological trap of thinking that our perception of G‑d as wise, kind, disciplined, omnipotent, omnipresent etc. actually expresses something of what is essential to divine being.18

Only in the brutish absurdity of this world—with all its sorrows, vices, and apparent randomness—is it utterly clear that there are no easy answers, no simple explanations. In this world we may freely choose to run our own lives, even at the expense of destroying the lives of those around us, and indeed our own lives as well. In this world, humans feel free to choose between good and evil. G‑d’s presence is so ambiguous that atheism can emerge as a serious contention.19

This may be the real meaning of the verse:

אִמְר֣וּ לֵ֭אלֹהִים מַה־נּוֹרָ֣א מַעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ בְּרֹ֥ב עֻ֝זְּךָ֗ יְֽכַחֲשׁ֖וּ לְךָ֣ אֹיְבֶֽיךָ׃

They shall say to G‑d, ‘how awesome are Your deeds, due to Your great might Your enemies will deny You.’ (Psalms 66:3.)20

The atheist has hit upon a truth that can best be grasped only in a world that allows for the emergence of atheism: So physical a world as this one couldn’t simply have evolved from a more spiritual realm in which the divine radiates more freely. So imperfect a world as this one couldn’t have simply evolved from what the human mind imagines to be divine perfection.

"The atheist has hit upon a truth that can best be grasped only in a world that allows for the emergence of atheism."

One of the foremost students and exponents of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s thought was his great-great-grandson, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson of Lubavitch (“The Rebbe Rashab,” 1860-1920). The atheist, he once said, does not believe that G‑d exists in the way that other things exist. And in this the atheist is closer to the truth than many believers.21 Divine being entirely transcends the ordinary notion of existence, and indeed any conception of G‑d that can be grasped in ordinary terms.22

But this is the central point: It is precisely the ambiguity and brutish absurdity of this world—indeed, the very possibility of evil—that brings us face to face with the full magnitude of divine transcendence. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman puts it:

Whatever is more lowly in station, and particularly the lowest station of physical action (asiyah gashmit) has greater revelation of the radiance of the Infinite Light that transcends all realms.23

This world does not evolve from something more ideal, but it leaps into being out of utter nothingness, propelled only by G‑d’s essential desire and essential infinitude; the infinitude that transcends any ideal, and which leaps across the entire span of the cosmic order to endow the most abject of all realms with reality, and indeed with ultimate meaning, goodness, and truth.24 These ideals themselves were only created so that we would realize them in this lowly world.25

Part 5: Real-Nothingness, Real-Transcendence

To contemplate the magnitude of this leap is to raise our conception of G‑d beyond any external frame of reference, opening the way for a new recognition of divine being that is emptied of all preconceptions. In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s language this is the recognition of G‑d as an utter singularity (yachid), utterly alone (levado).26

In prayer we laud G‑d as “singular (yachid), life of the worlds, sovereign (melech),” and similarly as “the sovereign (melech) who is exalted alone (levado) from aforetime.” These passages could be read as arbitrary lists of laudatory appellations. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman reads them as indications that the singularity of G‑d alone is fundamentally intertwined with the creative fulcrum of divine sovereignty.

The substance of the physical world, Rabbi Schneur Zalman concludes, arises “from the transcendence that is a radiance of Real-Nothingness (ayin mamash).”27 Real-Nothingness is not nothing. Real-Nothingness is the reality of ultimate being; the essence whose being does not depend on any assertion of existence.28

Only a direct radiance of divine essentiality can animate and create the physical world out of nothing. Ultimate reality is directly extended to a form of existence that is otherwise without any precedent.

All the supernal realms of the cosmos, as described by the kabbalists, are illuminated and animated by varying degrees of divine light. This light tangibly asserts the presence of G‑d, the grandeur of G‑d, the wisdom of G‑d, the pathos of G‑d, the wonders of G‑d. This spectrum of light is a radiance of divine substance, but it masks the Real-Nothingness of G‑d.

"The overcoming of cognition, the not-knowing or the knowing-nothing, is only the first step."

In all the supernal realms, atheism is an impossibility. But you know what else is impossible? It’s impossible to grasp the Real-Nothingness of G‑d. All that is possible in response to the varying degrees of divine revelation are varying degrees of submission, perception, love, awe, and ecstasy. In all these devotional relationships, the fundamental gap between G‑d and creation remains intact.29

On the one hand, the creation of this world is conditioned on the concealment—or cloaking—of G‑d’s infinite revelation. On the other hand, it is precisely when all such revelatory accoutrements are cleared away that we can begin to perceive a radiance of an altogether different sort; a new kind of clarity, a “learned ignorance” of radical profundity.30

The Real-Nothingness of G‑d’s essential being can only be glimpsed when all extraneous assertions of divinity are stripped away. The Real-Nothingness of G‑d’s essential being does not radiate outward; it is entirely transcendent, entirely concealed, entirely secreted within the self of G‑d. And it is only such utter transcendence, concealment, and secrecy that can provide a fundamental basis for so abject a world as this one.

Crucially—Rabbi Schneur Zalman makes clear—this is not merely a cognitive process, nor a mere overcoming of cognition. The overcoming of cognition, the not-knowing or the knowing-nothing, is only the first step. You gaze at the world and see it for what it really is; “a radiance of Real-Nothingness.” You see the concealing cloak of ambiguity as a splendorous inversion of G‑d’s true majesty—“singular (yachid), life of the worlds, sovereign (melech).”

But then you must act.

Part 6: Real-Action, Real-Delight

A lot has been said about G‑d’s “sovereign cloak.” But more awesome than the sovereign cloak is the sovereign crown. Here things are not only flipped inside out, but also downside-up.

Even as we behold “the radiance of Real-Nothingness” a crucial gap remains between ourselves and the self of G‑d. The beholder and what is in the beholder’s eye remain distinct; the one has not yet merged with the other. Moreover, while the individual beholder may have undergone a radical transformation of consciousness, that does very little for the rest of us. What of humanity—what of the world? For most, the veil will remain as impenetrable as ever.

This is why we cannot stop at knowing-nothing.

This is why we must act:

Each individual human being, Rabbi Schneur Zalman tells us, bears the responsibility to ensure that G‑d “will shine and be revealed … without any concealment of countenance and [without any] cloak.”31 This can only be achieved by taking the physical artifacts of this world and transforming them into fitting receptacles for the realization of G‑d’s infinite and essential will. Thereby, we not only embrace G‑d’s very self, but also adorn G‑d with “the sovereign crown.”32

In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s own words:

The radiance drawn upon the person when the mitzvah is performed in concrete actuality is the aspect of [G‑d’s] “sovereign crown” … By way of parable, the crown made for a king’s head is made of precious stones, which are inanimate … the lowest station … and nevertheless they are made into a diadem and crown … So with the performance of the mitzvot that the person actualizes, though they are vested in physical objects, nevertheless they become the supernal crown and diadem, the supernal pleasure of G‑d … And this pleasure and delight are revealed in the soul of the person who performs one of the mitzvot of G‑d.33

If you want to be alone with G‑d—if you want to draw the radiance of G‑d’s “sovereign crown” upon your own head and partake in G‑d’s own pleasure—spiritual adventurism will always disappoint. It is specifically here, in this absurd world of ambiguity and action, that we can best recognize the Real-Nothingness of divine being, beholding the majestic splendor of G‑d’s “sovereign cloak.” Even more fundamentally, it is only here that we have been provided with the mitzvot, via which we are privileged to embrace the very self of G‑d alone, delighting in crowning G‑d alone as King.

This is what Purim is about: Flipping theology inside-out and downside-up.

The rest is commentary. Now go do. Embrace the King and rejoice!