By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
Editor’s Note: Purim is a Jewish holiday that remembers the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to destroy all of them as recorded in the Book of Esther. It begins at sundown tonight (Wednesday, March 20th) and ends on sundown Thursday, March 21st.
Jewish Tradition sees the Hebrew Bible neither as history nor as a book of science. The essence of the text, according to the Rabbinic Sages in the first centuries, is to convey lessons for life that yield vision and meaning in every generation, across the boundaries of time and geography, not only for the Jewish People, but for all the inhabitants and all the nations of the world.
The Hebrew Bible, for example, opens with the statement that the world was in a state of darkness and chaos when God uttered the words, “Let there be light.” The Sages of Jewish Tradition ask, “What is the source of that light? After all, the sun, the moon, and the stars were not created until the fourth day!” Their answer: it was primordial light, emanating from the cloak of God, creating a bridge from chaos to the completion of creation. Our quest, therefore, is to do everything in our power to transform darkness to light, from chaos to completion, a world in pieces to a world in peace.
In the midst of meaningful messages comes the Book of Esther, the only book in the Hebrew Bible in which God’s Name does not appear! Based on pagan pageantry, it reads like an improbable soap opera, presented as a comedic message of seriousness.
The story begins with a narcissistic King who throws parties to honor himself, a foolish, amoral, and manipulative leader of Persia. When his whim is not fulfilled, he consults his advisors who are afraid they will lose stature; in order to maintain their status, they advise King Ahashverosh to declare an unreasonable law, that husbands are to rule over women. He conducts a search for a new queen, selected on the basis of a beauty competition. Esther wins the competition and becomes queen. Her older cousin Mordecai warns her not to let the King know she is Jewish.
The political structure is a comedy, except it turns deadly.
Haman, a descendant of Israel’s deadliest enemy, is the King’s “right-hand-man” who receives the promise of loyalty from everyone except Mordecai, the Jew. Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman becomes Haman’s obsession. All else falls to the side as Haman vows retribution by doing away with his opposition, by signing a death decree against Mordecai’s people, the Jews. He casts lots – Purim – to determine which day the Jews will die.
Mordecai persuades Esther to approach King Ahashverosh, to reveal to him that she is Jewish, and to expose the plot of the evil Haman. In a planned private party – remembering that the King and Haman love to party – she reveals that Haman desires to murder her people. The King angrily storms out of the room, and Haman throws himself on his knees before the reclining Esther begging for his life. The King enters the room, sees Haman, and concludes that he is “making a move on the Queen.” It is at this point, the King commands, “Hang him.”
Unfortunately, the King has already decreed that Persians are permitted to murder Jews on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar, and a decree may not be annulled. Instead, the King issues a counter-decree: the Jews are permitted to fight back.
It is the most non-biblical biblical book, yet the Rabbinic Sages declared, “When the Messiah comes, the only parts of the Hebrew Bible that need to be studied are the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Esther. Why Esther? Because it is an important message for all humanity: no matter how chaotic our world might be, no matter what buffoonery may come from a ruling government, we can set the world in order by standing up, as did Mordecai, and by speaking up, as did Esther, as unpopular as it might be.
The Jewish holiday of Purim, on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar – the same day Haman had randomly selected for Jewish annihilation – is marked by publicly chanting the Book of Esther to an upbeat pattern of notes, during which the congregation boos loudly at the mention of the evil Haman, shaking noisemakers to drown out his name. The normal code of dress for a worship service gives way to costumes: kings and queens, heroes and villains, funny hats, sports jerseys, colored wigs, and… There is a raucous, drunk-like joy permeating the walls of the room in which the story of Esther is shared.
Purim is the holiday of perspective, cautioning all of us and each of us not to give up, even in the face of ruling-class oppression and amoral societies. A key part of Jewish strategy is to laugh at dangerous buffoonery that would otherwise make us cry. We respond to amoral behavior and disorder by making moral decisions that may not make a difference today, but certainly will positively affect tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after.
In the face of Haman’s serious threat, and in the serious threat coming from all despotic powers and self-serving factions of society, Purim reminds us that we can bring order even in a world of chaos. And that is worth celebrating!
Longtime Longwood resident Rabbi Rick Sherwin, a graduate of UCLA, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Rick’s passion is filling spiritual services and interfaith educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue, and humor.