The following is a transcript of a speech at a recent Bnai David-Judea Shabbaton. One part of the program was in conjunction with Yachad.
“Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities is a thriving global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of all Jewish individuals with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in every aspect of Jewish life.”
Purim. It’s a story of good guys and bad guys, with a cast of characters that includes an inebriated king; a disobedient queen; a new queen with a secret; a pair of clumsy conspirators; and Darth Vader with a colonial-style hat. And we celebrate וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא — the sudden reversal of fortune — by wearing costumes, putting on silly plays, and eating and drinking way too much.
All this may seem an odd juxtaposition with the subject of inclusion. Though when you think about it….masks, costumes… Purim is perhaps the one time of year when we’re all judged — in fact want to be judged — by external appearances. But people with special needs are often and unfairly judged that way all the time. Though on Purim, costumes allow everyone to be included.
Actually, the tradition to celebrate Purim by dressing in costume is ironic, since the story the Megillah tells is so caught up in identity. And identity is Purim’s real connection to inclusion.
Consider, for instance, that despite being a people מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, scattered and dispersed, by the time of the Megillah the distinction between the remaining tribes of Israel has been supplanted by a common identity: יְהוּדִים, Jews. He’s not Mordechai the Benjaminite; he’s מרדכי היהודי. That the Persians used a one-size-fits-all label is no surprise; but the Megillah makes it clear that the exiles adopted it as well.
One could argue that this shared designation is the seed of וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא. For the first time in our history, we’re truly united by a common identity.
Still, it’s a fragile community, as Mordechai instructs Esther to conceal even this fragment of identity (her שארית ישראל, if you will). So she hides behind a mask and distances herself with a queen-Esther costume. וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא begins in earnest when Mordechai realizes that Esther’s mask and costume not only hide her, but simultaneously isolate her from the community. She’s both afraid to be seen and is reluctant to see. He awakens her to a responsibility towards the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיהָ, the community she’s left behind.
So beneath the broad arc of triumph of good over evil, the Megillah is a story of community and inclusion. Esther’s actions demonstrate that we must remember those who, metaphorically speaking, do not live in the palace. Mordechai is our conscience, reminding us of the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֵינו.
The word נֶּחֱשָׁלִים appears only once in Tanach — in Parshat Zachor, which we read every year on the Shabbat before Purim:
אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ — וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ
“Remember what Amalek did to you along the way: when you were weary and worn out, they attacked all who were lagging behind…”
Note that it wasn’t Amalek who was responsible for their exclusion. We were tired (עָיֵף) and worn out (יָגֵעַ)… and we neglected those in the community who fell behind, הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים.
But just who are the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֵינו — the left-behind, the excluded?
Of course, there’s the traditional triumvirate of the גר יתום ואלמנה — the stranger, the orphan, the widow. But even this excludes those with special needs.
Like Esther, people with special needs sometimes hide, or are isolated, behind their masks. Esther’s mask is described as יְפַת-תֹּאַר וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, beautiful — but we soon learn that she’s more than just a pretty face. How often do we give those with special needs a chance to show what they can do?
Consider my daughter Aviya. She’s happy, friendly, outgoing. She loves noses and circles. She particularly enjoys playing with words — saying them backwards, reversing letters. She doesn’t read books, she reads “koobs”; she comes home from school everyday on the “sub”. She does this not because of her challenges; she does this because she’s clever and enjoys being silly. It’s part of what makes her special. But too often a perceived mask and costume leave her excluded, and leave her endearing traits unknown, unacknowledged, unappreciated.
To be sure, there are some things she can’t do and maybe will never be able to do. There are some things she may never understand. But what she does understand are feelings of exclusion. When she goes up to other kids, they usually stare at her. Though she doesn’t always understand this, she often feels their silence and their distance.
I worry that soon, when Aviya becomes a young adult, many grown-ups will respond to her the same way. And despite a tremendous vocabulary, she can be hard to understand — and gets so frustrated at having to repeat herself that she often retreats into herself. Or hides behind a koob.
She and so many others in our community are the נֶּחֱשָׁלִים בתוכנו — the excluded in our midst.
The word נֶּחֱשָׁלִים is often translated as “weak ones,” from the word חלש. However the shoresh of נֶּחֱשָׁלִים would appear to be ח-ש-ל, not ח-ל-ש. But חלש is the word the Torah uses to describe the battle with Amalek: יהושע and his troops did not “defeat” Amalek; rather, ויחלוש יהושע – he “weakened them”.
So too, it seems נֶּחֱשָׁלִים should really be נֶּחֱלָשִים. Not חשל but חלש. This is an example of a linguistic process called metathesis — the reversal of sounds or letters in a word. And it’s not all that uncommon. For instance, כתונת is the source of the english word “tunic”; or the mispronunciation “nucyular”; or Aviya, who comes home everyday on the “sub”.
Usually this flipping of sound can survive to become part of the language only when the mispronunciation would not be confused with an established word. Thus the hebrew word כבש has the synonym כשב.
What makes נֶּחֱשָׁלִים remarkable is that its apparent shoresh, ח-ש-ל, already exists: חשל is the forging or shaping of metal to strengthen it. And not just metal — as Kelly Clarkson would say: מה שלא הורג מחשל.
So חשל and חלש have essentially opposite meanings.
Maybe all this is not a coincidence — maybe we’re being told
אל תאמר נֶּחֱלָשִים אלא נֶּחֱשָׁלִים
Don’t describe them by what they are — weak, excluded — but as what we should all be — members of a strong community.
Perhaps the text is reminding us not just of the actions of Amalek, but also how to correct our own failings. That, despite a common identity, more is required to forge a community. For the עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ — we, the weary and worn out — to be strengthened, we need to include the excluded. וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא.
In other words, Kelly Clarkson got it wrong: it’s really
אלא שמחשלים אחרים, הוא חישל אותו
Those who strengthen others, strengthen themselves. As individuals. As a community.
So this Purim,
- Remember to let Mordechai be our conscience and Esther our action hero.
- Don’t forget that a mask — yours or another’s — obscures ones view, and that external appearances are mere costumes.
- Recall the words of Shoshanat Ya’akov, which we sing after reading the Megillah,
להודיע שכל קוויך לא יבושו ולא ייכלמו לנצח כל החוסים בך
- “…to make known that all who hope and trust in You
- will never be ashamed or humiliated…”
- Remember that הִתְהַפְּכוּת, reversal, begins with our sense of, and commitment to, the entire community of יְהוּדִים.
We should remember this as we scroll through the Megillah next week… or any time we settle in to read a good koob.