Sober Up! It’s Purim.

A close reading of the text may raise some issues – I received this query.

In preparation for the upcoming holiday of Purim I decided to really read the Book of Esther. I feel like I have been jolted into reality. I thought Purim was a fun-filled joyous holiday; but now I feel like a mask has been taken off the story. This is no lighthearted tale. The situation is gravely serious and the fate of the Jewish People is at stake. All this is compounded by its unwittingly frightful foreshadowing of later episodes in Jewish history. At this moment I am wondering why it is such a jovial day with happy-go-lucky celebrations of costumes, food, drink and shtick and spiels, when the story is such a sobering one. I do not want to be the “Grinch Who Stole Purim,” but I think we need to inject some gravity into the day.

Your angst is appropriate though, sometimes tragedy and comedy collide. Dramatically speaking, in tragedy the end game is usually the death of the hero accompanied by sorrowful lamenting, while in comedy we anticipate a restoration of the disrupted communal order. As we consider the conclusion of the Megillah, we cannot be entirely satisfied with the narrow comedy label. Though communal order is restored to a strong degree, the story ends without complete resolution. We are left unsettled by at least three disturbing elements of the story. First, the fate of Esther, a Jewish woman trapped in the palace of a foreign king. Second, the Jewish people are still very much ensconced in a foreign country rather than in the Promised Land, and third, though we were saved from annihilation, our salvation was not the intimate miraculous swooping down of the Omnipotent but rather, deliverance was brought about confusingly by the hidden hand of the Almighty. Are in the disconcerting territory of tragicomedy?

The disturbing elements lead us to a sense of disequilibrium. We’ve got what to grapple with! It’s ok to be troubled - after all, this is not Shakespeare’s “All’s Well that Ends Well” – instead it is the more like, “All’s Still Troubling that Ends Almost Well.”

Take Esther for example. As children we are led to believe that Esther was an keen participant in a "beauty pageant" and wanted – just like all the maidens in the land, to become the Queen of Persia. As adults we know that this is quite the sugar coating of a very unsavory situation. As we mature we become more sophisticated in our awareness of the not-so-pretty circumstance through which Esther really becomes the wife of Achashverosh.

The text tells us in Hebrew "va’teelakach" Esther was taken, that is, by force. She was not a willing participant. It was only once she has a crisis at hand that she voluntarily offers herself to the king in order to save her people. Esther was a woman under duress. She was in a precarious situation and placed there against her will. She behaved heroically considering her dire predicament. Though she starts off silent and subdued, Esther finds her voice and summons up the courage to ingeniously save her people. But, in so doing she sacrifices not only her life as a member of the Jewish community but also something even more personal.

Brace yourselves, I may be dropping quite the bombshell here – according to the sages in the Talmud, Esther and Mordechai’s relationship goes beyond adoptive uncle and adopted niece. According to Talmudic tradition the two were married. This approach is not only mentioned several times in the Talmud, it is the basis upon which halachic decisions have been based. That Mordechai and Esther are husband and wife in the Megillah story, casts the story in almost an entirely different light. Now we can begin to understand the depth of the sacrifice of Esther and the monumental tragedy that lingers after the last gragger is sounded, the final hamantaschen munched on and the last drop of wine imbibed. Esther has given her all.

A second thorn in our Purim side is the realization that this Purim story takes place in a specific historical moment in time. It is not a tale simply floating out there in some never-never-land world. This threat to our existence in the Diaspora takes place after Cyrus King of Persia has written the decree permitting Judean exiles to return to the land of the Israel. The Book of Ezra records the official declaration;

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying: 'Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people--his God be with him--let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD, the God of Israel, He is the God who is in Jerusalem.

Some Bible scholars suggest that the Megillah has a satirical edge. When King Achashverosh summons Vashti, his queen to his palace for a party, it is the text ever so subtly reminding us that God, our King, has summoned the Jewish People to his palace in Jerusalem – and we have refused to appear. At this point there has been one Aliyah to the Holy Land of a mere 40, 000 people – by no means have the majority of the Jews in the Babylonian Exile returned to the land. Remember these people are the descendants of those who bitterly lamented, “By the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept for the Zion!”

The malevolent anti-Semitic plot to exterminate the Jews takes place after the Jewish people have been liberated and given permission to return to the land. As the story of the Megillah closes, our people remain deeply connected to Persia and to Persian culture.

Finally, the distance from God is marked by the hidden-ness of the miracle; God is “as if” hiding His face from the Jewish People. The name of God does not appear at all in the Book of Esther. Instead, miracles occur seemingly through happenstance. Though this feels painful and detached, the Talmud emphasizes that belief in a time when God is obscured is a loftier level of belief and commitment. Having faith in a God who is less apparent and more mysterious is a higher level of conviction. Hence, when the Jews accept upon themselves the celebration of Purim in the Megillah, this indicates their wholesale acceptance of God and recognition of Divine Providence - a veritable affirmation of the Sinaitic experience, without the overwhelming immanence of the Almighty.

Though there are threads of tragedy in the Purim story, we have chosen as a People to focus on the incredible salvation. We have given ourselves permission to let go of some of the more heartbreaking elements because well…bottom line - they tried to kill us, we were saved, let’s eat. Happy Purim!

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