Purim Wisdom: Explaining the Deeper Meaning of this Jewish Holiday which begins Saturday night, Feb. 23
February 22, 2013
Purim Wisdom Explaining the deeper meaning of this holiday!
by: Mark Kirschbaum on February 21st, 2013 | Mark Kirschbaum’s commentary on Torah and Jewish religious holidays can be read weekly on our blog Tikkun Daily. It’s free to subscribe at http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/join-tikkun-daily/
I will admit that I’ve always had a certain hesitation when it came to Purim. It wasn’t that I was so influenced by Bible criticism or historical scholarship, it was my own sense that the Book of Esther, the focus of the holiday of Purim, read more like a novel than a book of prophecy. It is probably for this reason that if you ask many people which came first, Hanukka or Purim, they would say that Purim was later- there is something more modern about Purim and the Megilla than about the Hanukka story. The Hanukka story feels more biblical than does the Esther story for a number of reasons- it takes place in the land of Israel, there’s a Temple with sacrifices and ritual purity, but most of all, there’s a miracle at the core of the story, whereas with Purim, there is no miracle, it takes place in exile, the Jews are a persecuted minority, and a lot of political intrigue is involved. So, despite its being hundreds of years earlier, the Purim story feels more modern, more contemporary. More importantly, the book of Esther, the “megilla”, reads more like a novel than any other sacred Hebrew text, though it is included among the books of the “bible”. I would like to argue now that this novelistic quality, seemingly a detraction from the sanctity of the holiday, may be, in fact, literally, its redeeming quality.
This literary quality of the book of Esther is not a modern discovery; it is already a problematic in the Talmud. Recorded in BT Megila 7., is an argument as to whether the book of Esther is sacred enough to ritually impurify direct contact (the special state of holy books is preserved by necessitating ritual handwashing in any contact) as are other recognized books collected as Torah. Interestingly, it is exactly the novelistic qualities of the work that salvage its sacred status:
We have learned: R. Elazar states that “Esther” was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Haman said in his heart”. Rabbi Akiva says that it was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Esther found favor in all who looked upon her”…Shmuel says, I have the best argument- as the text states “the Jews accepted and took upon themselves”, meaning they kept above what they accepted below (Megila 7.)
All of these proofs of divine inspiration are based upon what is traditionally recognized as a literary technique, the imputation of what someone must have been thinking, what the reaction of characters must have been in a given situation. Rashi explains that the reaction of a critical reader to these passages could be “who says?” in which case either the book is a work of fiction or the information comes from a divine source of inspiration. What is critical to our argument is that one could better argue the sanctity of the text from its message, or the ritual practices described, but instead, the central argument for its sanctity are exactly the loci which a textual scholar would use to disparage the texts divinity and point to its literary evolution.
Of course, the Rabbis in claiming “divine inspiration” and sacred status for the book were not claiming that the book had been delivered by angels or in a revelation, for after all the text itself states, at the end of chapter 9, that it was written by Esther in order to document the event and preserve the celebration inaugurated as a result. The Talmud and Midrashim actually have Esther and the Rabbis of the time debating whether this story should be “preserved” as a text (verses 31-32), while at the same time it is these verses proffered as support that the Megilla itself when used ritually needs to be written almost as though it were a Torah scroll, with certain types of thread necessary and use of sirtut, a way of making lines used in writing Torah scrolls. Aside from the ritual issues, these verses are also used by the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:5) to argue that the book of Esther has the same homiletical privilege as the Torah itself, being “as truth of Torah” and as such being an appropriate substrate for Midrashic explication! In summary, it would appear that it is exactly the most blatantly “literary” segments of the text that at the same time are chose to defend the texts sacred status both ritually and hermeneutically.
Is this perhaps intentional? Could there be a message in this?
To support this approach, we would need to better define, as it were, the redemptive capacity of literature. For this we will turn to Blanchot. In Blanchot’s L’Espace Litteraire, (citations will be from Ann Smock’s translation “The Space of Literature”), the question to be answered is “what is art, and what can we say of literature?” Blanchot writes:
It seems that art was once the language of the gods; it seems, the gods having disappeared, that art remains the language in which their absence speaks…
Blanchot argues that while the original impetus, the place of “origin” of art, may have been a bringing to presence of a message beyond man, beyond mastery, but eventually that work was “ruinous for the gods”, in that the work itself becomes greater than the gods, the work becomes:
not Zeus any more, but statue… when the gods are overthrown, the temple does not disappear with them, but rather, begins to appear…it reveals itself by continuing to be what it was from the first only unknowingly: the abode of the gods’ absence…
However, despite the human attempt at seeing himself as a creator and master as a result of the recognition of his ability to produce poetry and literature, “the work is no less dangerous for man”:
It soon appears that the work of art is by no means mastered by mastery, that it has less to do with failure than success…In the work man speaks, but the work gives voice in man to what does not speak: to the unnamable, the inhuman, to what is devoid of truth, bereft of justice, without rights…
In this way, Blanchot answers Holderlin’s question: “what use are poets in time of distress?” and sums up his view of the space of literature:
To this question there can be no response. The poem is the answer’s absence. The poet is one, who through his sacrifice, keeps the question open in his work. At every time he lives the time of distress, and his time is always the empty time when what he must live is the double infidelity: that of men, that of gods…That is why the poem is solitude’s poverty. This solitude is a grasp of the future, but a powerless grasp: prophetic isolation which, before time, ever announces the beginning.
Thus, literature is a form of prophecy that comes not from a transcendent source but from deep within human suffering, a hidden prophecy meant to bring about an end to tragedy, to evoke compassion and produce justice and truth from a recognition of its absence, and as such to produce a “‘now’ of dawn”.
We will see that a similar approach is taken to the book of Esther, even down to the analogy with a new dawn. There are multiple Midrashic readings linking the book of Esther with psalm 22, which is begins as a hymn for ayelet hashachar, usually translated as early dawn. In the earlier Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 8:1), the link is that redemption occurs, like the early dawn, in discrete stages, starting slowly and rapidly increasing in illumination, much like in the book of Esther, which starts off dark, then episodically the situation becomes brighter until there is mass jubilation at the end. However, this same reading is handled very differently in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 29.), which states:
Why is Esther likened to the dawn? Just as the dawn is the end of night, so is Esther the end of miracles…
This is certainly an odd teaching, for while at first glance the metaphor makes sense (end= end), but wouldn’t one expect that the end of prophecy would be more appropriately linked to the end of day? Dawn is usually a positive metaphor, the beginning of a bright, shining, new day, a step forward, whereas one would think of the loss of prophecy as the beginning of a long journey into night and darkness!
R. Tzadok HaCohen notes several midrashim which link the Purim story to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, the most explicit being in BT Shabbat 88., which states that there was a second (and greater!) acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at the time of Esther. There is another odd talmudic midrash in Hulin 139: which asks “where is Moses mentioned in the Torah?” and then asks for similar sources hinting at the characters mentioned in the book of Esther, with the proof text for Esther being “I will hide and conceal myself” (v’anochi haster astir) a statement that Gd will seem unreachable and remote during times of distress. This is an odd midrash for several reasons (why Moses should need a prooftext, being mentioned quite frequently in the Torah, and why the answer given is one dealing with the Flood episode is discussed in our essay on Perashat Noach), but to Rav Tzadok Hacohen this midrash reflects the others linking Sinai and Esther (thus Moses is included here and no other biblical personages). What, then, is the connection between Sinai and Esther? These represent two distinct stages in the evolution of Torah, traditionally referred to as the Written Law and the Oral Law. While the Written Law is a reflection of Gd’s will for the world, it is the Oral Law, that is, the written law as interpreted by the ensuing generations, which acts as the vehicle for spirituality to flow through history. Because it is transformative, it is also ultimately redemptive, and this process, given the shorthand title of Oral Law, begins with Esther, who is the first to recognize Gd’s presence in everyday affairs, and as such institutes new rituals and a new holiday, not mentioned in the Pentateuch, which commemorates the miraculous within the historical. It is this book of Esther, which serves as the transition point between Written Law and Oral Law, and this explains the teachng that even if the other holidays are forbidden, Purim will still survive (as per Rashba’s reading of this teaching)- for it is the spirit of redemption which is possible even when it appears that there is no guidance from above that cannot be suppressed.
This is suggested by the Or Hameir, who explains that request at the end of the Megilla to be “written for the generations” means that she is suggesting that her writings will serve as a source for inspiration for future generations, while the Maor V’Shemesh adds that she is suggesting that the text should qualify for the infinite readings possible of all the earlier prophetic works.
I would argue that it is specifically the literary element of the work that makes this possible. The “new dawn” made possible by Esther, is that the encounter with evil, as recognized by the artist, can serve as a catalyst to liberation. Prophecy is no longer necessary, the individual human experience alone is adequate to expose tyranny, evoke a desire for change, call for freedom from repression. Transformations of human consciousness can be achieved with a poem, a song, a novel. It is for this reason that book continues to feel contemporary even after a thousand years, for it is a process within the reach of any one of us who is moved by the confrontation with endless Amalek.
The Book of Esther suggests that there is no better way to end the period of prophecy than with the return of responsibility to the actions of a few good people.
2. until one can not differentiate between good and evil
No image of torture? I want to proceed as Raphael did and never paint another image of torture. There are enough sublime things so that one does not have to look for the sublime where it dwells in sisterly association with cruelty; and my ambition also could never find satisfaction if I became a sublime assistant at torture…. Nietzsche
Purim is an unusual holiday in the Jewish calendar in that as opposed to the solemnity of most holidays, it is one which phenomenologically appears as one of unbridled levity. Children and adults dress in costumes, one is meant to drink until “Blessed be Mordechai” is confused with “Cursed be the evil Haman”, a large meal is held which frequently was accompanied by itinerant comic and satirical theater performances. The message is that events in the world are not as they appear at first glance, even when it appears that all is lost, salvation is just around the corner, or lurking beneath the surface.
The story is told in the Book of Esther- an evil minister of the Persian king, Haman, attempts to get back at another courtier, Mordechai, who Haman feels has ‘dissed’ him. Instead of taking on Mordechai directly, he spends a lot of his own money bribing the king to wipe out Mordechai’s entire people, the people later to be known as the Jews. This decree is accepted by the Persian king, until it is revealed that his beloved Queen is also an MOT (member of the tribe, in Jewish campus slang), and instead the king hangs Haman and his clan, and give Mordechai a good government position. Hence the levity surrounding the holiday, and my presentation of it is in that spirit.
The Rabbis, however, while institutionalizing the rowdy nature of Purim, also recognized the darker aspects of the story. While in this particular instance the outcome was a favorable one, the mere possibility of a situation of mass murder of innocents is a terrifying one.
Thus, for example, the Talmud equates the response of the people to this deliverance to that of the revelation at Sinai – according to the Talmud (BT Shabb. 88.), at Sinai, it appeared as if God held the mountain over the people of Israel and gave them the Torah under compulsion, whereas at the time of Mordechai and Esther, the people re-accepted the Torah, but this time, out of love. One might say that Sinai was a heteronymous acceptance, whereas Purim was an autonomous one. We will return to this midrash later.
To reinforce this darker side of Purim, the holiday is always preceded by a Sabbath Torah reading in which the portion of the Torah dealing with the attack by the Amalekites upon the newly freed slaves, is recounted. We are told that this desert tribe targeted the weakest flank of the Israelite camp, and that this fierce attack was unprovoked; in fact, the text states, the Amalekites essentially stumbled upon the freed Hebrews, and decided to attack them on the spur of the moment. Thus the Amalekites became synonymous with the unlimited capacity for human cruelty, and the command, repeated twice in the Torah, was to remember the attack, and to blot out their memory.
One obvious connection of the Amalek episode to Purim is that Haman is described as an Amalekite in descent, yet there is more to it than that. For example, R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin points out, Haman’s connection to his progenitors was more than merely one of genes- the name of the holiday, Purim, comes from the lottery, the pur, that Haman cast in order to determine when to kill all those people – a celebration of random violence apparently being a deep seated Amalekite tradition.
It is important to note, that while perhaps in antiquity there were skirmishes with actual Amalekites (such as the one that cost King Saul his throne), in traditional Jewish discourse, way after the term lost any connection to any actual people, the term “Amalek” became a metaphor for all that is bad in the world; in mystical thought the term is a cipher for the evil itself.
Among the Hasidic masters, recognizing the use of singular rather than plural commands in connection with the commands to remember and eradicate Amalek, Amalek came to mean the “evil inclination,” that is, the flawed aspect within each individual that requires transformation and sublation. R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in his Pri Haaretz, whose reading we will study at length, notes several oddities in the text of the commandment and comes up with a reading that presages that of Freud regarding melancholia and fetishism, as we shall see. The Pri Haaretz notes that a commandment to remember is problematic, since forgetfulness tends to be viewed as an accidental, not an active process. Furthermore, the remembrance is explained as being necessary in ‘erasing the memory of Amalek’. If God had wanted Amalek’s memory to be erased, why mention them at all? Without a textual mention to keep their memory alive, would they not be forgotten like so many other tribes and civilizations that left behind no trace? Aside from the fact that the people Moshe was speaking to in the desert didn’t need to be reminded of this episode, as they had lived through it. So what is this command to remember to forget actually about?
In order to understand his answer in contemporary terms, let us take a brief detour through Giorgio Agamben’s presentation of Freud’s understanding of the concept of melancholy: “In melancholy, the object is neither appropriated nor lost, but both possessed and lost at the same time.”
Agamben quotes Freud, whereby the melancholic ego, unable to let go of the lost object, withdraws from reality, and invests its energy into creating ‘phantasms of desire’, which substitute a superior reality for actual reality. What Agamben realizes, is that the relationship of the ego to these phantasms of desire constitutes the basis of all cultural creation and progress:
No longer a phantasm, and not yet a sign, the unreal object of melancholy introjection opens a space that is neither the hallucinated oneiric scene of the phantasms nor the indifferent world of natural objects. In this intermediate epiphanic state, located in the no-man’s-land between narcissistic self-love and external object-choice, the creations of human culture will be situated one day…
Agamben sees this no-man’s land, this intermediate state of incompleteness and desire, as being the motivating factor behind artistic development, for example, here is Paul Celan:
…I speak, yes, of the poetry that does not exist!
Absolute poetry, – no certainly it does not exist, it cannot exist!
But it does exist, yes, in every existing poem, it exists in every poem without pretense, this question that cannot be evaded, this unheard-of pretense…
At any rate, what is central is the sense of lack, absence, deficiency that can bring about the neurosis of melancholy, or, if redirected and properly channeled, leads to creativity and the realization of a better or more beautiful reality. Perhaps, I would suggest, it is that ‘thing’ that exists between languages, that aspect of the writing that the translator accesses and attempts to recreate in a different language, that place of meaning primary to the actual words finally used, according to Walter Benjamin.
We can now return to the Pri Haaretz. His concern is with the relationship of memory to the task of eradicating evil. To explain this he turns to a Talmudic midrash, from BT Rosh Hashana 21: which states that Moshe achieved 49 of the levels of Consciousness (the 49 shaarei binah), but not the 50th. Why not? Because by definition the 50th level of understanding is – the not understood, that which cannot be comprehended. This highest state, the non-comprehendable, the lacuna which lies beyond knowledge, is that which drives the will to understanding forward and thus paves the way for all future breakthroughs in consciousness.
This memory, if you will, this phantasm, this non-comprehendable which drives us to breakthroughs in consciousness, is also the response to evil in the world, because it is also the place where evil cannot penetrate, he explains, being a pure drive for positive transformation, for self-completion. Concepts at the level of understanding are notoriously subject to critique, parody, and ultimately subversion. Even the most profound mystical knowledge can be mocked (hear the one about the Zen monk who asked the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything?). However, the awe and wonder which drive the imagining of a better, more beautiful existence, remain unattainable.
In a sense, then, the spiritual journey is, ontologically speaking, greater and purer than that which is actually found. The continuing “memory,” the recognition that the world is imperfect, or the self-recognition that I have faults and can always be made better, or to bring it back to the subject of Purim, that there is always still “Amalek” in the world and in our selves, this drive motivates the process of personal and world transformation.
This message underlies the celebration of Purim, according to the Sefat Emet. He reads the adage that “one must drink on Purim until one reaches the state where one knows not between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman” as suggesting, not that we are confused, but rather beyond- we achieve a spiritual high, reach that state prior to and beyond the ‘tree of good and bad’, that place where there is no distinction between good and evil- because in that place there was no dualism, no evil, no lack, no corruption, no torture, no suffering. Reaching back for this state in a celebration of the rare victory of the persecuted by malevolent powers, by “redemptive memory” to use Walter Benjamin’s term, we can visualize, even for a drunken moment, world transformation where there is no longer hate or suffering.
With this in mind, we can return to a central theme of Purim, which teaches a few lessons about response to hate speech. Haman pitches his genocide to the king by stating that the Jews are dangerous because they are widely dispersed throughout the kingdom, and thus in some way threatening. Of course, the reason the Jewish community was spread out was because their homeland had been razed by the Assyrians in the recent past, but put in this light, the people’s suffering is made to appear sinister and threatening.
How then, to respond to this kind of hate speech? A model for response is presented by the Kedushat Levi. His message for Purim was built upon the Midrash cited earlier, regarding the re-accepting of the Torah at the time of the deliverance from Haman. Generally, that midrash is read as stating that God, so to speak, forced the Torah upon the people at Sinai, whereas the people re-accepted the Covenant out of love after the fall of Haman. (There is a lovely essay by Levinas in his Talmudic Discourses built upon this reading).
However, the Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev, offers an alternative reading. The phrase used there is kafa aleihem har k’gigit, which means that God lifted the mountain over their heads, threatening to turn Sinai into their burial ground if the people reject the Ten Commandments. However, it is a commonplace of midrashic metonymy that the word har, pluralized as harim, can be revocalized as horim, meaning parents or ancestors. In this reading, also found in the Ohev Yisrael, the Israelites recently redeemed from slavery, were reminded of, or lifted up to the level of, their illustrious ancestors, and in that state received the Torah. In other words, they weren’t threatened with violence at Sinai, as in the plain meaning, but instead, were raised up to that higher consciousness which transcends good and evil, and in that state were able to be transformed.
The challenge of history is that revolutionary consciousness is difficult to maintain over the generations, and certainly in difficult and challenging times people lose hope (in fact, the Kedushat Levi points out that immediately after Sinai the people fell from this state and rapidly sinned). Certainly not the victimized suddenly dehumanized population described in the Book of Esther, and yet, their Jewish Renewal was accepted on a par with the original giving of the Torah at Sinai. Because this time, the victory came from the people, not from above, as in Sinai, but from the people themselves, from their innate desire to become better, to transform the world, to transcend depression and melancholy. For this reason, the rabbis explain that this was the last book of the bible text, from this point on, the Oral Law, the set of interpretations that grow from humanity’s lived experience, becomes the guiding principle for life, superior in some ways to that which can be understood from the text without the human element of interpretation.
These then are our contemporary responses to Purim: to stick firmly to our active memory of the reality of the suffering of those against whom hate is directed, a “redemptive memory” of the possibility of a better world, a “phantasm” which guides our dreams to a world beyond hate and suffering, “until we don’t know” of further hate and sorrow.
I’m certain we can all drink to that! Happy Purim!
From Rabbi Arthur Waskow: Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s essay on Purim came from the Shalom Report, a weekly blog from The Shalom Center. You can subscribe by clicking to The Shalom Center’s website at Http://www.theshalomcenter.org and then clicking on the green “Sign-up banner.”
Purim – the “spring fever” topsy-turvy festival for which we read the Scroll of Esther, begins this Saturday night. For centuries, the Scroll has been read as a triumphant celebration of the overthrow of an anti-Semitic, genocidal official. Though this would seem to be a serious business, the festival has been celebrated with mirth, costumes, purimshpiels poking fun at all authority, even at the Rabbis who might be overseeing the celebration, even at Torah itself. Indeed, wearing costumes can be one way of laughing at our own conventional, “established,” identities.
Understanding Purim as the Jewish version of the celebrations of “spring fever” in many cultures, poking fun at conventional values and power-centers, evoking early-spring hilarity at the defeat of Winter, encouraging topsy-turvy behavior and ideas, makes sense of the levity hidden in the gravity, the gravity hidden in the levity. What unifies levity and gravity is satire — and the Scroll of Esther is indeed not factual history but rather a truth-filled satire of the pomposity & cruelty of The Powerful 1%.
Megillat Esther was the first Purim-shpiel. It was written to celebrate a Purim that already existed, and its deepest joke is that it claims that its story is the reason Purimexists.
But that is not the only joke in this satire. For centuries, it has been apparent that the fall of tyrannical Haman comes in the form of a classical joke – the “slipped on his own banana peel,” “hoist on his own petard” variety: Haman the anti-Semitic, anti-stranger xenophobe gets hanged on the same gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.
When I wrote Seasons of Our Joy in 1981, I pointed out that Esther is woven around not one but two jokes of that same classic form: The king, who begins the whole action by insisting he and all the men will never take orders from women, ends by doing exactly what Esther tells him to. Anti-Semitism & anti-feminism, or xenophobia and gynophobia, go hand in hand in the story. Queen Vashti had the courage to resist male chauvinism; Queen Esther had the courage to resist both aspects of tyrannical power.
I think I was able to see this in 1981 because Purim already showed signs of becoming a celebration of Jewish feminism in the new edition of Seasons, I am happy to report on the much stronger sense that Vashti as well as Esther have become heroines for modern emulation, and I quote a few verses of “She [Vashti ] Said No to the King.” (The whole song is available at http://www.shechinah.com/reb-rayzel-lyrics.html.) The new edition of Seasons, published by the Jewish Publication Society, is available from The Shalom Center by clicking to the shalom center. Now this feminist understanding of Purim has taken a major step into becoming explicitly political – that is, about power.
Here is a powerful statement about Purim from this angle, by one of the Women of the Wall, who are resisting the anti-woman behavior of a modern “king” – the government of Israel. Women of the Wall insist on their right to pray and chant aloud, wearing the sacred shawl of fringes, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. For this chutzpah they are arrested, humiliated, sometimes beaten.
The great Kotel schlep
By HALLEL ABRAMOWITZ-SILVERMAN 02/20/2013 23:48 Jerusalem Post
On Purim at the Kotel, I will refuse pompous demands – in this case that women keep quiet. Last week, on Rosh Hodesh Adar [the New Moon] , my mother, eight other women and I were detained by police for wearing a tallit and singing at the Western Wall. Halfway through our detainment some of us were moved, without our lawyer, to a different police station. A police officer presented me with an agreement to stay away from the Kotel for 15 days. I nervously and reluctantly signed.
In the story of Purim you read about two courageous young women, Vashti and Esther, who have always been role models for me.
Shortly before my fifth birthday, listening to the megila, I heard Vashti say “no” when the king summoned her. I perked up immediately and said excitedly, “Like Rosa Parks!” Later in the megila, I nervously awaited the king’s response to Esther’s uninvited visit.
Women should not be stopped as we read Megilat Esther at the Kotel. Wearing a tallit is a personal spiritual choice. At first I was going to respect the pledge not to got to the Kotel for 15 days, because I thought the next time the Women of the Wall were gathering would be Rosh Hodesh, March 12, but women’s megila readings will take place on Monday, February 25, at 9:45 a.m. at the Kotel.
I WENT to Jewish day school in Boston, Young Judaea Zionist camps and celebrated my bat mitzva in Israel. I made aliya with my family in 2006, when I was 11, to Kibbutz Ketura and now live in Jerusalem where I am a member of Kol Haneshama. Given that Purim is my favorite holiday, sometimes falls on my American birthday, and its protagonists are brave, inspiring women, I need to say “no” like Vashti, and, like Esther, approach authority uninvited – in this case not Persian royalty but the Israeli police, the civil authorities who enforce the extremist desire to control my prayer.
So, on Tuesday this week I followed Esther’s lead and showed up unannounced at the Kishle Police Station inside Jaffa Gate and requested an exemption for Purim. Miraculously, the police backed down and granted it! (Thank you Anat Hoffman and David Barhom.) Now, on to Purim at the Kotel, where I will follow Vashti’s lead and refuse pompous demands, in this case that women keep quiet.
There’s something I did not notice when I heard megila all those years ago – Mordechai’s question to Esther: “Mi yodea?” “Who knows?” Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox should learn from the humility of that question.
I’m calling on the women of Jerusalem, young and old, secular and religious, to join me in costume celebrating the courage of Esther and Vashti, and of Women of the Wall. For those of you outside Israel, it would be a wonderful act of solidarity to wear a tallit over your costume when you, wherever you are, from the US to Persia – freely recite and hear the megila.
The Jewish state that asks us to proudly wear its uniform should never ask us to remove our prayer shawls. Or to give in to the extremist demands of the ultra-Orthodox who proudly wear their prayer shawls but refuse to don the Jewish state’s uniform.
The author recently completed high school and hopes to participate in Agahazo Shalom, a volunteer youth village in Rwanda. She can be followed on twitter at @purplelettuce95
In my own view – not necessarily that of the Women of the Wall – it is an echo of the ancient double satire that today, the same Israeli government that jails women for praying at the Western Wall oppresses Palestinians and militarily occupies the nascent Palestine. The same US politicians who oppose the Violence Against Women Act spew contempt on immigrants. Those who rule near the top of the pyramid are most frightened and most disgusted by the strangeness of strangers (and for them, women are strange). Tradition has it that since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Shechinah, feminine aspect of God, weeps at the nearby Western Wall for all the injustices and idolatries of the world. Indeed! And Her daughters, Her sisters, Her mothers weep with Her at the Wall, though at the same time they laugh at the ridiculous behavior of the cruel and pompous 1% of our own day.
Laughing at the 1% is an early stage of shattering their power. What comes later is Passover, when our laughter drowns them out.
This year, celebrating Purim as it begins this Saturday night, let us celebrate the courage to defy authority, to affirm and defend whoever are the “strangers” in our midst and whoever has been excluded from dignity and empowerment: women, gay people, Palestinians there, Muslims and Hispanics here.
And let us take joy in the courage of Shechinah’s daughters – Vashti’s and Esther’s sisters – the Women of the Wall; the American nuns whose work for the poor the Vatican has tried to suppress; the women of the US Senate who insisted on renewing the “Violence Against Women Act” despite the cruel and pompous politicians who are still opposing it — and let us welcome into courage the countless unnamed women abused and beaten in their homes.
From Rabbi Dan Goldblatt:
The Power of Purim
Many of us are familiar with the quite about the eternal quality of Purim from Midrash Mishle 9:2, as well as the Vilna Gaon’s play on “Yom haki-Purim.” After I gave a teaching about the unique kedushah of Purimrelated to its being the quintessential Jewish farce, a congregant of mine asked, then why do we fast beforePurim?
I wish I know who taught me this, but I love the quote even without a proper attribution: “On Yom Kippur, we prepare for the fast by having a feast the day before. On Purim, we prepare for the feast by fasting (Taanit Esther) the day before. We see the balance of half-physical/half-spiritual reflected in the preparations for each of these holidays.
And in the Talmud, (Ta’anit 22a) we read that a certain Rav Beroka once met Eliyahu Hanavi in the marketplace. Rav Beroka asks who of those in the marketplace will inherit the world to come. Eliyahu points to two men. Rav Beroka wants to discern what accomplishment distinguishes these two from the others. “What is your occupation?” Rav Beroka asks. They answer: “We are jesters. We make the sad laugh, and when we see two people arguing, we try to make peace between them.”
May this Purim bring us a little closer to the time of peace and harmony – when as Midrash Mishle teaches us, there will only be Purim.
Shabbat Shalom v’Chag Purim Samayach,
Vashti to the Rescue
By Sonia Zylberberg
Vashti leaned back into the shadows, making sure her cloak covered her completely. Since fleeing for her life, she had perfected the art of invisibility, of wandering through towns and countrysides without calling attention to herself. Just another nameless woman. Tonight she was on more dangerous ground: she had returned to the palace itself, where the guards were more numerous and more vigilant, and might even recognize her.
She had to come. She had made a vow that awful night that, if she survived, she would look out for her successor, she would use the knowledge she had amassed during her ten years as queen to try and help the next victim. So here she was, risking her freedom for Esther
The poor silly girl! She’d no idea what she was getting into. And that cousin of hers – what was he thinking – insulting Haman like that! The king’s prime minister was not a man to be disrespected, especially in public. Haman took himself very seriously and would never forget or forgive any trace of insult.
Vashti waited patiently until the last servants and guards had withdrawn, then slipped into the queen’s chambers, into the room that had once been hers. Shaking herself to quell the memories, the rage, she looked down at the lovely young queen. Covering Esther’s mouth to keep any startled cry from escaping, Vashti gently shook the younger woman’s shoulder.
Esther’s eyes opened so quickly Vashti thought she might have been feigning sleep. Perhaps the young queen was no longer quite so naive? She made no sound at all, but her eyes widened in surprise when she saw a cloaked stranger, not a servant. She nodded as Vashti indicated the need for silence and, when the hand covering her mouth was removed, whispered: “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Does the name Vashti mean anything to you?” The sharp intake of breath gave her the answer.
“Well, never mind what they’ve told you. Most of it isn’t true and we’ve not time for that right now. I’m here to help you.”
“Wha..wh…why?” Esther started to stammer.
“I’ll explain later. But you’re in trouble!” Esther nodded: “I know. But Mordechai has a plan.” Vashti shook her head firmly: “That man has no sense. He got you into this and listening to him will get you all killed. You need a good plan!”
A faint sound from the hall made them both jump. “It’s not safe here,” Vashti whispered, her mouth an inch from Esther’s ear. “There are eyes and ears everywhere. I must go – the palace is waking up. But I’ll be back. In the meantime, make sure that cousin of yours doesn’t do anything, anything at all!” She opened the door, pausing for a moment to make sure there was no one on the other side and then, as quietly as she had come, was gone.
Esther blinked, thinking she could have imagined the whole thing, so rapidly and completely had Vashti vanished. Yet she felt better than she had for a long time, less alone, less afraid. The weight of her people no longer rested on her shoulders alone. If nothing else, Vashti’s visit made her feel like she had a friend, an ally, someone to help her. She thought about what they had told her about the former queen – “ball breaker” was one of the more polite descriptions. No one ever explained what had become of Vashti – they just got a wise look on their face and nodded knowingly, implying a very bad end. The same one that awaited Esther if she did not watch her step. The cautionary non-tale had helped reduce Esther to the state of fear in which Vashti found her.
Mordechai’s encounter with Haman had not helped at all. Esther was used to listening to Mordechai and accepting whatever he said: he had been her guardian for so many years, since her parents died. But lately she had begun to wonder whether it was such a good idea to just follow along behind him. Take this queen thing, for example. He had insisted it was a good idea – for her, for him, for all their people, even for the old king, who would get a lovely young queen (her!). In other words, a win-win-win situation all around.
Not true. Now she had no friends, no one to talk to, she was afraid all the time, and the king was a drunken old fool. She was sure he had no idea who she was half the time, just a female body in his bed. He had even called her Vashti once or twice – it seemed the only one he could remember was the one that got away!
The next night was her turn with the king; the other nights were for his other “wives” – the women who had lost the beauty contest but did the same job as her, without the title. Because she was the official queen, she had the honour of enjoying the king’s company twice as often as the others. They, none of them, were allowed to speak to the king without invitation. This rule had been strictly enforced since the Vashti episode.
The night after, back in her own bed, she waited eagerly. Vashti did not appear. Nor the night after. Esther began to despair – Mordechai was beginning to pressure her to act as the date set to kill the Jews drew near. She didn’t know how much longer she could put him off.
A week later, when Vashti finally returned, Esther was so relieved she threw her arms around the older woman’s neck and fell on her, kissing her cheek repeatedly, and crying “Thank you thank you thank you.”
Vashti disengaged her arms, smiling gently at the enthusiasm: “I haven’t done anything, don’t thank me yet.”
“But you’re here, you came back, I’m not alone.”
“No,” Vashti said soberly, “that is the worst of what they do to you here. But no, you are not alone.”
They got down to business quickly. Vashti had come with a plan. “The first part,” she began, “is to rescue Mordechai before he is killed.”
At Esther’s blank look, she continued: “It seems he has managed to offend Haman again! And this time Haman is out for his blood.” Esther looked at her in amazement. Vashti answered the unspoken question, “We know what’s going on throughout the country. We’re not that powerful yet, but we have resistance cells all over. That’s not important now, what’s important is saving Mordechai. In a strange way, we owe him. Remember when he exposed the assassins? They were ours, a rogue cell that grew impatient and was moving too fast and would have gotten us all killed. When Mordechai overheard the plot and denounced them, he saved us. And, here’s the thing, he put Ahasuerus in his debt. The king loves loyalty, but has a short memory. We just have to find a way to remind him.”
At this, Esther looked up, struck by an idea: “Is it in that book? The big fat red one?”
Vashti nodded: “I imagine so – I think he has everything recorded in that book. Why? Do you have an idea?”
Esther blushed, she was not used to being listened to. “It’s just that he’s been having trouble sleeping lately – his gout has gotten much worse – and he often has the Palace Lector read to him from the book. It distracts him and eventually puts him to sleep.”
Vashti stood up and started pacing in her excitement: “That’s a great idea! We just have to set it at the right page!”
Esther interrupted her gleefully, almost forgetting to whisper: “I can do that!” To Vashti’s “You can read!?” Esther nodded vigorously, swelling with pride, “My cousin taught me.”
Even as she felt envious, Vashti saw how this solved one problem: “Yes! Well that takes care of Mordechai, but the edict against the Jews is trickier and much more dangerous. My co-resisters and I have been discussing it all week and we’ve finally come up with a plan that I think will work. It requires some acting on your part.” She looked at Esther questioningly and the queen nodded with her newborn confidence.
“We’ll use Mordechai’s idea of confronting the king, but we need time to coach you, much more time than we’d ever have here.” She gestured towards the hall and the sounds of the palace stirring. “The only place where they will leave you alone is in the temple. Tell them you want to go on a spiritual retreat for three days of uninterrupted fasting and prayer. We’ll take the place of the temple priestesses so we will have those three days to work with you and get you ready. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Esther whispered. The idea of spending three days in the company of Vashti and her co-resisters, after so long with no one at all to talk to or be with, was almost more than she could bear.
“I know,” Vashti murmured. “I know, I’ve been there too.” As the sounds grew louder, she stood up abruptly. “I have to go. Try and do this as soon as possible – we haven’t got much time.” And she was gone.
Esther managed to put the first plan into action that very day. Pretending to search for a lost earring, she wandered into the king’s sleeping chamber and set the red book to the page that recounted Mordechai’s denunciation of the two traitors. Hopeful that she had done what she could to save her cousin, she quickly moved to the next step. She informed her co-wives that she was feeling depleted and felt the need to replenish her spiritual energy. Helena, the king’s second wife, agreed to act as queen if any official need arose. If anyone asked, she would mumble the magic words “women’s stuff”, guaranteed to cut short any further discussion. Two days later, Esther left the palace. The king’s guards escorted her to the door of the temple and delivered her into the care of the high priestess, promising to return in three days.
Esther had been to the temple before. During the year of training, the contestants had spent several days here, praying to win. She had thought of it as a cold and unfriendly place, not at all like the small, cozy house where she went to pray to the Hebrew God. This time, though, it seemed like an oasis of warmth and hope. The darkness was a friend, a cloak for plans which required secrecy.
In the inner sanctum of the temple, Vashti was waiting with seven other women. Over the course of the next three days, they trained her in assertiveness and self-defense; to use her beauty as a weapon and to use more deadly force when feminine wiles were not enough; to mask her emotions and her thoughts; to project what she wanted people to see. How to use her looks, her beauty, to distract people, to direct their gaze where she wanted. How to modulate her voice to influence them. All the lessons focused most especially on the person of King Ahasuerus and how to get him to do what she wanted. They transformed the meek obedient girl into a confident and powerful woman.
Esther had always been an open and friendly person. She had believed in people, believed what they said, and responded in kind. But she changed quickly once she grasped the essentials of deviousness and guile. At the end of three days, the resistance-priestesses gathered round and pronounced her ready.
Vashti saluted the queen, saying, “You are now a graduate of the school of artifice.” Esther laughed with the others, her confidence stemming, in part, from their presence. Vashti sobered the atmosphere: “We’ll be watching. If need be, we’ll try to help. Hold that close to you if you become afraid. But we can’t act for you, this is yours. Have courage.”
Esther bowed her head. She faltered for a moment. Her self-assurance ebbed and she grabbed Vashti’s arm. Then, as they heard the king’s guards approaching, she closed her eyes, swallowed, opened her eyes and stepped back. Gathering her cloak around her, she turned to greet the guards who had come to take her home.
Upon her return, she lost no time. Her next official night with the king would not come soon enough – by then the appointed day would have passed and the Jews would be dead. She would have to force an audience in his official chambers. A much more dangerous place for her to open her mouth unbidden than in his bed, where she at least had the advantage of having satisfied him.
She went first to her own chambers. Even as she told her handmaid to run a bath, she was picking out the dress and jewelry she would wear: the most becoming and revealing dress, the most dazzling of the jewels. She knew the first impression had to be perfect, that there would be no second chance. When she was bathed, anointed, dressed and bejeweled, she went to the king’s receiving chamber.
It was a room that she had been told to never, under any circumstances, enter uninvited. Esther did not hesitate. Waving the guards aside, she entered the chamber with her head held high and approached the king. She fell to her knees, at his knees, every movement calculated to direct his gaze to her lightly veiled breasts. When she felt him enthralled, she next chose coyness from her arsenal. Smiling up at him, head bowed, eyes raised, bosom heaving, she breathed: “My lord, I hope you are not angry with me for coming to you?” He hesitated. She continued in the same dulcet tones, “I missed you. I hoped to convince you to come and see me soon.”
By now, the courtiers had averted their eyes so as not to be caught staring at her breasts, which were beautiful but not worth dying for. Ahasuerus had no such problem; he feasted his eyes, cleared his throat, and exhaled a desire-saturated “Ahhh…” as he stretched his sceptre towards her.
“Perhaps you would like me to prepare a banquet in your honour?” she continued.
His face flushed even more deeply at the thought of a feast of food to accompany . . . the rest. “I would like that very much.”
She turned suddenly to Haman, who was hovering behind her, trying to protect the purity of his eyes from this lascivious performance. He may have been pompous, but he was not a fool: he recognized competition. “And perhaps the prime minister would care to join us?” she smiled winningly. The prime minister, conceding her momentary advantage, could only nod.
“Wonderful,” she cooed. “I will expect you both tomorrow night.” And she turned and floated out of the royal presence.
She managed to sustain the lighter-than-air display of confidence until she reached her own chamber, where she spent the next hour shaking convulsively as the fear she had repressed overtook her. She practiced what she had learned, the breathing and the visualizations, and eventually she managed to calm down enough to realize that she had done it! She had risked her life and survived! The plan was working!
At the feast, Esther regaled the king and Haman with the finest foods and wines. She had invited Helena as well, and Helena, excited to be included in this prestigious and precedent-setting event, sat at Haman’s side and kept him well-flattered. When the meal was almost finished, Esther sat down next to Ahasuerus and, trembling, burst into tears.
This was a dangerous move. Ahasuerus did not like tears. But he had eaten well, he had drunk well, and was well-disposed towards his lovely host. “Whatever is the matter, my dear?” he inquired magnanimously.
“Your Majesty,” she sobbed, “please spare my life.”
He sputtered: “Whatever do you mean? Who would harm my beautiful queen?
“I have been sold, together with my people, sold to be destroyed, to be massacred. If we had only been sold into slavery, I would never have disturbed you with this, but he will have us completely exterminated.”
“Who is he? Where is he, the man who has ordered such a thing? Who would dare to do this to my queen? Who would betray me?”
Esther turned and pointed at Haman: “There he is! The adversary and enemy is Haman!”
Bellowing for the guards, the enraged king charged from the room. In desperation, Haman turned to beg Esther for his life. He knelt at her feet and kissed the ground in front of her couch, pleading for mercy. The king returned as Haman was getting to his feet, still inches away from the queen as she reclined on the couch. Seeing this, Ahasuerus flew into an even greater rage: “Is it not enough that he betrays me? He is going to attack my queen as well? Molest my queen in my own palace? Usurp me?”
There could be no mercy. Haman was hanged from the very gallows he had so deviously prepared for Mordechai. Ahasuerus gave the Jews the right to defend themselves, which allowed them to avert the disaster Haman had tried to set in motion. Instead of being exterminated, they seized their liberation, and the 13th of Adar became a day of joyous celebration.
Esther decided she’d had enough of palace life and enough of Mordechai. Leaving a grateful Helena to take her place as first wife to the king, she climbed onto the mule, behind Vashti, and they rode off together, into the new moon.
Copyright © Sonia Zylberberg 2012
Sonia Zylberberg is a religionist who lives in Montreal. She teaches at Dawson College and reads mystery novels and other fiction in her spare time. Her first novel is The Orange on the Seder plate: A mystery in six symbols (2012). She can be reached via her website www.soniaz.weebly.com.