When I think of the Purim holiday, I tend to think of noise-making, carnivals, costumes, and cookies. It was definitely one of the more fun Jewish holidays when I was a kid. But, as an adult who has actually read the Book of Esther, I realize that there are many parts of the story that are not so kid-friendly.
1. While I did dress up as Queen Esther for at least one Purim carnival as a child, it turns out that the story does not treat women well. Ahasheurus’ first wife, Vashti, was asked to parade naked in front of the king and his friends. She refused, and was replaced as Queen because of her unwillingness to appear nude before a group of drunken men. It was Esther, a woman who was willing to do this, who was rewarded by the King and became a hero of Jewish tradition. Throughout the text, there are several troubling details about how women are treated throughout the story, including in the king’s harem, where women were kept as concubines whose role it was to please the king.
2. There is a lot of murder in this story. The Jews felt threatened during the story until thanks to Esther, the king decided to save the Jews. The catch was that the decree to kill the Jews could not be reversed, so the king instead allowed the Jews to defend themselves. The oppressed (Jews) become the oppressor, killing not only their attackers and the sons of Haman, but also 75,000 Persians. Personally, I find it hard to claim that murdering more than 75,000 people was self-defense.
3. Revenge is a powerful theme associated with the Purim holiday. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, the traditional Torah reading is the story of the defeat of Amalek. The Bible speaks of the Amalekites as cruel people, and thus the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Amalekites. The connection to Purim is that its villain, Haman, is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. Thus, when one reads about wiping out the Amalekites and then reads about the Jews committing murder at the end of the book of Esther, one might conclude that violence and revenge are celebrated in these texts.
4. Drunkenness is celebrated on Purim. In the Talmud, it says that one should drink to the point where he no longer can distinguish between the bad guy (Haman) and the good guy (Mordechai). This is clearly an adult angle of the holiday.
5. And remember those good cookies? Hamantaschen! I always learned the three-cornered cookies were representative of Haman’s hat or his ears. It turns out that they may more closely resemble female genitals. Lilith Magazine’s Rabbi Susan Schnur writes:
So … . can I prove that hamantaschen are contemporary sacred vulva cakes? No. But it certainly makes academic and gut sense to me: that parthenogenetic (self-fertilizing) hamantaschen—pubic triangles traditionally filled with black seeds—are pre-spring, full-moon fertility cookies, suggesting the potency of female generative power, and heralding women’s and the Earth’s seasonally awakening creativity.
What does all of this mean? Should we skip the Purim fun for kids just because the holiday has adult themes as well – and in some parts, disturbing messages? I don’t think so. I think it’s important to celebrate the holiday across the ages. And, then, my hope is that every child grows up and wants to learn the “rest of the story” because those details are fascinating and important as well. They shed light on the biblical authors and their worldview.
My husband and I are binge-watching Lost, a 2004-2010 TV series. An airplane crashes, leaving survivors stranded without rescue on a remote tropical island. The survivors bond as they face the island’s threats together. “Lost is the perfect blend of drama, action, and science fiction,” says my brother. By drama, he means character development. By action, he means shooting guns. By science fiction, he means writers weaving random impossible ideas into a plot.
Except, this week, Lost seems a bit less like fiction. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has disappeared. We do not know if, where, and how the passengers are living. We can read in great detail about attempts to find them — and learn that no one really knows where to look.
This week’s terrible travel news is the flip side of Lost. Viewers of Lost know a great deal about the characters on the island. But we know nothing about the anxious family and friends waiting for news. Nothing about the airlines, governments or rescue crews as they search.
In real life, no one yet knows both sides of the missing jet’s story. But in my own mind, I cannot separate the facts from the fictional story. When I watch Lost, I imagine the untold stories of those who wait. As I read about the search for Malaysia flight 370, I worry about the passengers and crew; I pray for their well-being.
Imagine a story with only two sides, where no one can experience both sides, where anyone who sees one side cannot see the other. Imagine you see only one side. But when you look closely, everything flips around, and now you see only the other side.
V’nahafoch hu, as we say at Purim. It all turned over. Inside-out. Upside-down.
During Purim this year, I had a v’nahafoch hu experience.
You know the ongoing, polarizing debate about Jewish power. Do we, in North America and Israel, have enough power and security? Or are we always battling the beast of antisemitism with money and military strength? Two views, mutually exclusive. Normally, I see only the former.
From that perspective, I cannot stand the triumphalist tone of Megillat Esther. Deep down, I think, I am embarrassed to celebrate Jews winning political power. When history treats us well, we should be pleased with our efforts, providence and luck. But celebration of triumph over others, well, that’s in bad taste. That’s my gut feeling as a fourth-generation American Jew who grew up at ease with both her Ashkenazi ethnicity and American citizenship.
This past Shabbat morning, just a few hours before Purim, v’nahafoch hu—something turned over. A 65 year old man in our congregation, whom I have known for a decade as Mr. I-am-spiritual-but-not-religious, celebrated his bar mitzvah. Throughout the service, he held hands with his 94 year-old mother. Towards the end, he addressed the congregation. “I am the first person of my lineage not to have a bar mitzvah at age 13. I grew up in post-World War II Romania. Where we lived, it was not safe to express our Jewishness. But now, Hitler and his friends are mostly gone, and here I am, in Canada, celebrating my bar mitzvah at 65.” He smiled. All 150 witnesses cried. Except his mother: she laughed and cried at the same time. V’nahafoch hu.
That evening, I experienced the Megillah from the perspective of my Romanian friend. Yes, we are still here! With enough power to live without fear. With enough security to be Jewish, whatever that might mean. Like Mordehai and Esther in the Megillah, we triumphed. But not in their flashy fictional style. We moved forward in real ways, with trauma and heartbreak and a very slow recovery. This Shabbat, one man stepped forward into his sense of Jewish power. Not everyone is ready yet to follow him.
So much in life is hidden from us. Sometimes it takes 65 years, or 94 years, to find what we seek. Often we make the search extra-hard, letting binary thinking narrow our perception and insight. But if we look closely at the clues offered, everything can shift around, and maybe we can see multiple sides all at once.
May that happen to those who search for flight 370. I will pray for them, for the flight’s passengers, and for its crew.
“The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”-Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes.
In the up coming, and probably final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman run, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman returns to save Gotham once again (starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader – to be released July 20th, to see the trailer click here). In the story, it’s been eight years since New York, I mean Gotham City, last saw Batman. Eight years prior he branded himself a criminal in place of Harvey Dent (Two-Face), because, he felt, the city’s need to see Harvey as a hero was greater than the truth. Now he can’t help but come back again, this time to fight a new super villain, Bane.
So, I guess we need our heroes – or do we?
[For the real comic book nuts, eight years might be nothing compared to Batman coming out of retirement at age 55, dealing with aging and mortality as he fights for justice in Frank Miller’s 1986 instant classic, The Dark Knight Returns. Click the above book cover to read more about it.]
There is something biblical about the least likely hero (see Time magazine’s piece the Anti-hero where TV’s hit Breaking Bad is set center stage). My favorite Biblical outcast turned hero: Jephthah.
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.
Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:1-6).
In just six short verses the Bible establishes Jephthah as an outcast and then quickly pivots him to be a hero (Brilliant writing! Better, divine!). Whether it’s David fighting Goliath, Batman saving us from the sadism of the Joker, or even Rocky fighting a Russian killing machine in a boxing ring, there is something biblical to the sense that at the brink of catastrophe a Chosen One will rescue us at the last possible second. The Hanukkah Song, Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell) makes the point explicit:
Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael, Who can retell the things that befell us,
Otan mi yimne? Who can count them?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor In every age, a hero or sage
Goel ha’am. Came to our aid.
In the case of the song, the reference is to the Maccabees who fought back the Greek
Assyrians, and rededicated the Holy Temple that had been made impure by the enemy (Hanukkah means “dedicate”). Perhaps it’s America’s deep grounding in Biblical tradition that we so often fall for the super hero. Or maybe it’s something in the nature of man. It could be that we just want someone to look up to. When things look their worst, don’t worry – someone will step up and save the day. Personally, I fear that we have that expectation with regard to climate change, that some super scientist will invent some technology (cloud seeding, or metal trees that oxygenate the air), and hence our misguided lack of urgency. I worry about our craving and reliance on radical, heroic fixes. The Talmud teaches the dictum: “Ein somchim al ha’ness,” don’t rely on miracles. And while the theme of the the hero is so central to the history of the religious mindset, it exists as a paradox. There is a perversion, an abdication of responsibility, that comes with falling for the hero – Don’t worry, be complacent, someone, somehow will fix things.
When Queen Esther fears speaking to the king to save the Jewish people, her uncle, Mordechai chastises her:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape… And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”(Esther 4:13-14).
And hence the paradox of the hero:
Salvation will come at the hand of a hero – but the hero is you.
While I too fall for the hero and plan to see the new Batman this week, I know deep down that it’s just entertainment. Real life, especially a religious life, one where I feel ultimately accountable to God’s expectation to love, to uplift, to care, requires a message of personal responsibility antithetical to the super heroic. It asks us to find the heroic within ourselves, to step up to challenges instead of being frozen by them, or waiting for someone greater to save us. The need to step up to human responsibility, and not wait for a greater power to fix things, to redeem mankind, may even be central to ultimate salvation, and the ultimate redemption of the world. Rabban Yoachanan ben Zakkai (90 C.E.) said it like this: If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah’ – Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b. Rabbi Heschel taught that God was in search of man. “God is still waiting for a righteous generation, who will live by justice and compassion,” he said.
In other words: It’s up to us to save us, or, at the very least, it’s up to us to live lives noble enough to be worthy of saving.