Purim for Adults…
Purim and kids go together. Think carnivals and costumes, special sweets and silly songs. The focus of many of my favorite childhood memories, Purim seems designed to delight and entertain Jewish children. Often lost in the boisterous bustle of our Purim celebrations is a series of rather adult themes and messages that come to us primarily from the Book of Esther. Esther may read like farce, but a deeper hearing of its utterly improbable story puts us in touch with some very big issues, questions of concern for our ancestors two thousand plus years ago which happen still to be serious concerns for us today.
First (and perhaps foremost) Esther is a diaspora story, a tale that examines the dynamics of life as a minority in the midst of a much larger non-Jewish population. How connected to the larger culture should a Jewish minority seek to be? How separate? How cautious should Jews be about revealing their Jewishness in public? Is it safe to be “out?” Is it dangerous? Our ancestors, perhaps beginning with the Jews of ancient Persia, faced those very questions, and Jewish communities around the world and across the centuries have continually faced them. And, we face them in our contemporary diaspora Jewish lives as well.
In the person of Haman, the Book of Esther raises up the very real and truly terrifying specter of murderous anti-Semitism. Haman’s claim – presented in his words to King Ahasuerus – serves up the classic statement of violent anti-Semitism: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them…” [Esther 3:8] A certain people…whose laws are different…and who do not obey. We know that story all too well from too much of Jewish history and, alas, we hear that story again in our time in too many places around the world.
The Book of Esther and the traditions of Purim which grew from it raise significant questions about the very adult project of shaping and communicating one’s identity. Esther herself is the star player in this saga of identity revealed and hidden. Who is Esther really? She is introduced to us by two names – Esther and Hadassah – without any indication of which (if any) is her “real” name and which is an add on. And when she enters the king’s court as one of many beautiful young women vying to become queen, Mordecai warns her to conceal her “true” identity. “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.” [Esther 2:10] Her precise relationship with Mordecai is so unclear that the Talmudic rabbis entertain the possibility that they are in fact married to one another! The example of Esther’s shifting and shaded identity invites us as readers to consider our own identities. Who are we, really? And in what ways do we mask our deeper selves with costumes of all shapes and sizes?
Famously, God does not appear in the Book of Esther. The narrative is entirely secular, a court intrigue filled with colorful, if cartoonish, characters, but devoid of a Divine Presence. Readers over the centuries have been prompted to ask where God is in this story? The Talmudic rabbis connected Esther’s name with a theological idea, derived from the Torah in which God, in anger, hides the Divine face. “Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? R. Matan answered: “Then I will indeed hide My face (haster astir) on that day…” [Bavli Hullin 139b] God’s disappearance, at least from the foreground of the story, raises important dilemmas. How do we operate when God can no longer be seen or felt or directly experienced? How do we know we’re on the right track? How do we figure out what God might want from us?
Finally, the Book of Esther opens up the tantalizing question of determining one’s central purpose in life in general and in each specific moment and circumstance. The turning point of the book’s narrative arrives in the form of Mordecai’s ringing directive to Esther: “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.” Mordecai’s words motivate Esther to own her true identity and spur her to act. The rest is “history.” Read in personal terms, Mordecai’s challenge to each of us might go something like this – What am I doing here? What is my larger purpose? And am I prepared to step up? No farce here!
Tonight we party. Come morning, the enduring and deep themes of Purim will still be with us. Perhaps that reality helps to explain the perplexing comment with which Maimonides concludes the section on the laws and practices of Purim in his Mishneh Torah. “All Prophetic Books and the Sacred Writings will cease (to be recited in public) during the messianic era except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just like the Five Books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Torah that will never cease. Although ancient troubles will be remembered no longer, as it is written: ‘The troubles of the past are forgotten and hidden from my eyes’ (Isaiah 65:16), the days of Purim will not be abolished, as it is written: ‘These days of Purim shall never be repealed among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never cease from their descendants.’ (Esther 9:28)”
Earlier troubles fade from memory. The really big questions last forever.