The Jewish holiday of Purim begins on Thursday evening, so as every year, my thoughts turn to the tale of identity and redemption it commemorates.
A few years ago I took a course in midrashic writing (writing that elaborates biblical texts) from a well-known poet who decided to use \Megillat Esther\/the Scroll of Esther — the text for Purim — as the primary text we would study and embellish. There was just one problem: our teacher didn’t think much of the main character. Esther was a dumb beauty queen, she told us, whose only qualification for her central place in Jewish history was that she’d won a beauty contest that landed her the hand of King Achashverosh (anglicized to “Ahasueras”) of Persia, the 4th-century BCE equivalent of “I Want to Marry a Millionaire.”
But I don?t think so. To me, the Scroll of Esther–10 short chapters that take up only 15 pages in my English/Hebrew edition of the bible and prophetic books–is one of the most psychologically acute and subtle of Jewish sacred writings, and I find something new and wonderful in it every year. (You can read the Scroll of Esther online — it has everything, beauty, romance, adventure, bitterness, tenderness, intrigue, cruelty and revenge.) Esther and her foster-father Mordechai are adept at psyching out the opposition and using strategies akin to aikido or other martial arts to turn their own unbalanced energy against them, with both satisfying and unsettling results.
The bare outlines don’t do it justice: through her beauty, modesty, and Mordechai’s canny advice, Esther, concealing her heritage, is chosen to replace Vashti, a queen who had offended Achashverosh through insubordination. As Esther lives comfortably in the palace, Mordechai confides to her evidence of a plot against the king, and Esther gains favor by alerting her husband. Time passes, and the king promotes his advisor Haman to prime minister. Because Haman is a descendent of the hated Amalek, a sworn enemy of the Jews, Mordechai refuses to bow to him ? insubordination again! In retaliation, Haman plots to do away with Mordechai’s people, the Jews. Casting lots (“purim” means “lots”) to select an auspicious day (13 Adar) for the Jews’ destruction, Haman offers to pay for the dirty deed himself, thus gaining the king’s consent. Mordechai alerts Esther, begging her to intercede with the king, but she demurs, fearful of provoking his wrath with an unwanted entreaty.
Here Mordechai says something quite extraordinary, something that might be heeded by anyone who seeks personal safety through an alliance with power at the expense of justice: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”
Esther is persuaded. She purifies herself through prayer and fasting (as the Jews of the community pray and fast to support her). At great risk to herself, she presents herself to the king, waiting in his antechamber to be summoned. This is a key feature of the story, because if one is so importunate as to approach the king unbidden, the punishment may be death. But Esther has been modest and loving, so the king extends his scepter to summon her, offering to grant anything she asks, even to half his kingdom.
Still, she refrains from asking outright. Instead, through charm and guile she induces the king to turn Haman’s vile plans on their maker: Haman is impaled on a stake he has erected to execute Mordechai, Haman’s property devolves to Mordechai, and Esther comes out of closet as a Jew. Then, with a bloodthirstiness we like to dismiss as an artifact of the past, the Jews are given permission to slaughter their enemies. The Scroll of Esther is the only biblical book in which God is never mentioned, which makes it a rather effective lesson in the way life’s energies flow through human hands and hearts, helping those who help themselves.
From this story, I take several themes that have immediate implications for my own life. I think about the idea of preparation, of making oneself available for whatever healing mission life might require. I try on the understanding that whatever privilege or advantage one has gained may be less a reflection of intrinsic merit or just desserts than an element of that preparation, positioning each of us to perform the service that is uniquely ours. And I think about how hard it may be to know when that moment has arrived: the bible is full of important characters who at first refused a summons to destiny — Moses tried to get out of leading the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, saying he was not up to it; Esther tried to get out of beseeching the king to save her people, fearing for her life.
How do we recognize such a call? How do we find the courage to answer it?