Do you ever wonder about the donkey and elephant? Yes, the color lineup has also puzzled me in the past, especially since before the 1980’s the colors were reversed! But the red-and-blue thing bothers me less because, like your good ol’ fashioned camp color war, it only makes sense for each political party to choose a color. But what’s with the donkey and elephant?!
If you’re wondering what got my cerebral juices flowing about this just now, it isn’t that campaigning for the 2020 elections is already quite revved up. In fact, it’s Hamodia’s fault. No, not because the editors have decided to run. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t (if they would run, they would definitely have my vote!). But what Hamodia did do is publish a poking-fun-at-democrats editorial cartoon last week, featuring a weary donkey reacting to the blockbuster “no collusion” reports with, “WORST. NEWS. EVER.”
With Purim and its ubiquitous costume pageantry a recent memory, the elephant-donkey thing presented as a prudent point to ponder. Surprisingly, they have more in common than I initially thought. Well, at least regarding those with an uncanny preponderance for wearing costumes that are, shall we say, less than flattering (think pink pixies and chaotic coiffures). If you’re of a Freudian psycho-dynamic analytical bent, you probably spend a lot of Purim pondering what types of maladaptive childhood experiences some of these freakish-costume wearers may have had.
Well, as it turns out, it is not only some spunky sons who enjoy donning mocking manifestations, but the two (main) political parties of the US of A as well. Donkey origins of the democratic party apparently date back to 1828 when Andrew Jackson’s opponents hurled an insult at him that, for some odd reason, inspired him to incorporate the imagery into his campaign (he won that race and became America’s 7th president). But what really solidified it all was the artistic flair of feared satirist Thomas Nast, who popularized the donkey-elephant imagery during his tenure at Harper’s Weekly from 1862 to 1886. Although an avowed republican, Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and did not spare even the republican elephant his harsh harpoons. No matter that the donkey-and-elephant imagery was employed in so overwhelmingly negative a light, the People embraced it and made it their own.
Now, were this phenomenon nothing more than political punditry, this article would end right here. Actually, it never would have begun. (I have a strong distaste for political punditry.) Of interest, though, is the Purim pageantry. Being a father of children ranging from 2-13 (I would have written how many children I have, but my wife comes from chassidishe-Poilishe stock where apparently that’s a big no-no), I have noticed over the years that the whole dressing-up thing is what Purim is ALL about for kids (ok, the junk flowing like water also holds appeal). And that bothered me. A lot. Why should a Yom Tov that is all about recognizing Hashem even through the hiddenness of galus, celebrating our miraculous salvation by Hashem’s incredible grace, universal Jewish unity, and re-accepting the Torah with love, be reduced to something that is seemingly so superficial and just incredibly ancillary? But this year, my mind moved towards a different direction. A direction of “if they are not prophets then they are the children of prophets”; that this minhag too deserves utmost respect. So I started thinking about what deeper symbolism might lie beneath the clownish coverings.
And that’s when it hit me.
What is the “best” costume? It’s the one where no-one can tell who you are, isn’t it? A costume is a disguise. A hiding place. The costume wearer is hidden from everyone; people cannot tell who he is. And during the Purim miracle, Hashem — whose name is not mentioned outright even once in the entire Megillas Esther — was hidden. Yes, He was pulling all the strings; but from “behind the curtain.” Hidden in the word “hamelech,” Hashem’s intervention was not readily apparent. Except to those who know Him so well. Because even the most well-disguised costume-wearer will be detectable to those who are so familiar with the cadence of his voice, his unique body language, and all the other subtle clues and cues that those who are bound in closeness and eternal love recognize right away.
When Klal Yisrael recognized the loving hand of Hashem despite the darkness of the galus disguise — and despite all of their own shortcomings, flaws, and failings that were so painfully manifest therein — they were overcome with the sense of the unbreakable, eternal bond of closeness and love that they have with Hashem. Thus, on Purim, we are able to embrace that which we normally run away from. We dress up in disguise and hide ourselves. Because we know that no matter how hidden we may be beneath our flaws, failings, and follies, Hashem always knows who we really are. And He empowers us to stay forever close to Him, not only despite our imperfections, but through them.