Monday, March 21, 2011

Grateful for Purim-Why?

Purim is a controversial holiday.You might be surprised by this assertion given how much fun it is and how beloved a holiday it is , especially for children. After all, who but a curmudgeon would object to partying as a way of celebrating an experience of deliverance and rescue? Who could object to having a carnival with costumes, the exchange of food packages and achieving the pinnacle of celebratory intoxication-with the blessings of the Rabbis- to the point of losing any sense of discrimination between the villain and hero of the Purim story, Haman and Mordechai? Is it not a psychological victory to throw all caution to the winds-especially with rabbinic sanction and under its supervision, and experience a moment of guilt-free letting go of restraints and simply having a great time?

However,there are serious voices in the Jewish community that attempt to temper this extreme form of celebration. It is felt that such extreme behavior is un-Jewish, bordering on the pagan!

Nonetheless, Purim is regarded by the talmud as a holiday that will outlast all others; its message elicits great gratitude that has the power of surviving the passage of time and circumstance.

What are we grateful for on Purim?

If the story is true and reflects the reality of Jewish life in the Diaspora, we are grateful for being rescued from annihilation. This gratitude is unmistakable and quite dramatic. Furthermore, we can be grateful for the chance to have fun, an opportunity not always available to us, something that lightens the burden of our existence.

In my opinion, Purim essentially is a time to celebrate and acknowledge one overarching historical reality of the Jewish people-its survival. No other people has succeeded to survive as a distinctly creative entity in spite of all odds, as the Jewish people. So salient is this characteristic, that at a gathering of Jewish leaders not long ago, the Dalai Lama expressed his deep interest in understanding the nature of this Jewish experience in order to glean some insights on the dynamics of survival in circumstances that logically would make survival virtually impossible-homelessness, powerlessness, discrimination and persecution. He, of course, is struggling with the loss of Tibetan independence to the hegemony of the Chinese government.

The Story of Purim is a paradigm narrative of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. In spite of imaginative interpretations and mystical exegesis prevalent among commentators trying to suggest the hidden hand of God, an honest reading of the Book of Esther leads one to conclude the utter absence of God and any intimations of supernatural interventions. Stripped bare of any theological implications-no mention of God in any shape or form is made throughout the book-we are left with a story that unfolds within the realities and circumstances of history and the nature of Jewish precariousness in the Diaspora.While many point to one passage as a disguised yet suggestive reference to God's perennial availability , words spoken by Mordechai to Esther in the face of her refusal to appear unannounced before Ahasuerus- “ ...if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter...”(Esther 4:14), I believe that this statement merely reflects the unyielding trust that Mordechai had in the survivability of the Jewish people no matter what Esther would decide. There is little question that the fate of the Jewish people was questionable at best; they could be done away with at the mere whim of a monarch or despot. Without homeland, a government or military structure with which to defend itself, the Jew had very few options for successful survival. Yet the Jew survived! How? This mystery continues to fascinate us and fill us with wonder.

What is the answer of the Book of Esther to this question?

Again, I reiterate that no amount of pilpulistic creativity will convince me that the author(s) of this book conveyed an unmistakable belief in God's readiness to intervene publicly and overtly as demonstrated in so many other parts of the Bible' over-all narrative.The Jewish people was left to its own devices, and did survive. How?

First, with the cunning, courage and daring of its leaders. Mordecai emerges , like the many “Court Jews” that followed him, a presence that is attuned to the workings and intrigues of palace politics. He pays close attention to all that transpires around him, observing carefully the interactions of the many players for power within the confines of the royal court.He overhears the plot to kill the king, reports it, and in this way injects his loyalty and indispensability into the fabric of the court's political unfolding, winning the favor of the king. He is cautious about making his Jewish identity public recognizing that Jewish vulnerability can easily be taken advantage of, and insists that Esther conceal her identity from the king. The tools of his trade are subtle, the use of any and all possibilities for successful interventions with the source of power, the king, exploiting the king's weakness for wine, wealth, women and his need to compensate for his impotency with a semblance of masculine decision-making power. Interestingly, a close look at the text reveals that Ahashuerus never makes a decision about anything without first consulting advisors. He merely ostentatiously exhibits his affluence and possession of beautiful women in order to gain an authoritative respect for his kingly masculinity.

Esther daringly makes use of her physical beauty, charm and appeal, to win her way into the king's heart and thereby gain entry to a vulnerability that can be effectively manipulated in order to reverse his decisions which in fact were not his but Haman’s. Like so many of her Biblical predecessors who commanded power by cunning and manipulation, Esther has no choice but to do the same if she is to rescue her people.There was always risk and great danger to all such efforts but no other recourse remained.

Additionally, another source of Jewish survival skill was the cooperation and participation of the entire people. When Esther demands that the people fast, mourn ,wear sackcloth and cry out in preparation for her daunting challenge of confronting the king, no where is it indicated that the object of this public act of mourning and grieving was God! No prayers were recited; only wailing and crying filled the homes and public places of their communities. This outpouring represented more an act of public solidarity and support , perhaps a gesture of reaching out to the general public for some attention, consideration, even support. A Jew who felt the sorrow of his fellow Jew was indeed a “good” Jew, offering her concern and empathy as a means of bolstering the community's strength.What else could the average Jew do? Protests and demonstrations are political realities of the 21st century but were beyond the consciousness of ancient Persian civilization. The people lived the dictum of the Rabbis-”He who shares in the sorrow of Jerusalem will one day join in celebrating its joy!”

Jews survived this way throughout its history. Of course faith in God and the promise of a Messianic future played a central role in its capacity to maintain hope and strength in the face of such insurmountable odds and hardships. But for the author of Esther, survival was the ability of the people to withstand all the uncertainty of tomorrow with a deep sense of trust in itself and its leaders. Without such sources of leadership and loyalty , the Jewish people would find itself without any hope of self-preservation as a people.

The Book of Esther is a bold, straightforward narrative of the precariousness of Jewish existence in the Diaspora.The scenarios presented reflect a a common paradigm of Jewish history over the ages. Societies were ruled by monarchs whose primary concern was their own personal well-being and reputation, usually guided by a clique of advisors who in fact were the powers behind the throne. Ahashverus certainly fits this mold; a king with little interest other than enjoying the privileges of his position through the ready availability of women,wealth and wine, sources of monarchial masculinity. According to the story, he makes no independent decision of importance and rules at the response of advisors and his queen , to whom he pays deference out of his deep passion for her.

As long as “harmless” rulers like Ahashuerus occupy their thrones untouched by agents of evil and ambition, life unfolds undramatically, and securely for the Jews. Unfortunately, when men of overreaching ambition will go to any length to achieve their hunger for power, against the backdrop of a weak ruler a power vacuum is created with ideal conditions for the emergence of those seeking power and glory at the expense of others, in particular the long-standing scapegoat for occupiers of power throughout the generations, the Jew.

Repeatedly, the counter valence of persons with special ties to seats of power who were either Jews themselves or were favorably disposed toward the Jewish people, with sufficient political skill and cunning could outmaneuver these other forces of peril to the Jewish community. Steadfast support of the rank and file of the Jewish community reinforced the strength of the community at large and the voice of Jewish leadership as well. The anxiety associated with living in exile and not knowing the outcomes of tomorrow was somewhat mitigated by the determination of the Jewish community to learn how to navigate the perilous waters of a hostile and unpredictable world around them. The Purim story is such a story of successful and skillful political maneuvering that rescued an entire community from annihilation.

For this moment and the many others, we are grateful and pay tribute to the fearless leaders of our people who risked their lives and those of loved ones to provide an anchor of some security in the ocean of stormy exilic existence.

How much more grateful can we now be with the State of Israel restored and constantly strengthened as the homeland of the Jewish people once again.

Happy Purim.

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