Showcased by Kedem Auction House earlier this month, the Megillah from which the above image is taken features politicians and celebrities as the story’s characters. For example, Osama bin Laden is Haman, George W. Bush is King Ahasuerus and Madonna is Queen Esther. The Megillah was commissioned by an anonymous collector, said Israeli designer Itzhak Luvaton, who was asked to create it back in 2007. Luvaton supervised the project and created the master sketch, which was sent to tens of artists and painters. After all the painting was completed, master scribe Avital Goldner wrote the text. The process took about a year.
Purim is, by any account, a strange holiday. Jews dress up in costumes, get shickered to the point that they can’t discern a hero from a villain, and read one of the two books of the Torah where God doesn’t figure in the narrative. One might think that the point of the day is to “eat, drink and be merry” and celebrate the fact that an ancient Jewish heroine outwitted the Persians. It seems like the classic “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat” holiday. But under its surface of masks lies something deeper.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that Purim prepares us for Pesach (Likutey Moharan 2.74). The connection is that Purim is about hidden miracles and Pesach is about revealed miracles. As winter begins to turn to spring around Purim, the powerful life hidden under the cold exterior begins to blossom and rise; around Pesach, spring is in full bloom and the smell of freedom is in the air.
Traditionally on Purim most people dress like characters from the story, as opposed to Batman or Darth Vader. The story of Purim is our story, after all. God’s name is never once mentioned in the Book of Esther because God is behind the whole story, a story of sequential coincidences leading to God’s presence and activity being revealed.
The Purim story has a series of reversals: the Jews go from helpless victims to warriors; Haman goes from powerful to powerless; Mordechai goes from weakness and danger to strength and security.
Esther, of course, whose very name means hidden (hester) goes from entrapped woman whose Jewishness is secret, to free, triumphant, openly Jewish heroine. All of these reversals are about God’s reality breaking into ours.
The message of the story is that God works in hiddenness. Our daily lives seem mundane only when our eyes have become jaded. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said with characteristic beauty in Man is Not Alone: “The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in the ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook, day after day, hour after hour. To them, things are bereft of triteness; to them, being does not mate with nonsense.”
Purim is a celebration of the revelation of God in the overturning of what appears to us to be reality. What seems to be random (pur, a lottery) is shown to be anything but; what seems to be God’s absence is actually his presence. Often the only way for us to see God’s presence is to put aside our own opinions about what is good and what is bad in order to see deeper. Purim nods at this truth with its famous injunction to drink until we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai – an injunction, by the way, which most rabbis argue is better acknowledged with a symbolic wee drink rather than actually getting sloshed.
Rebbe Nachman’s point is that when we see God’s presence in the mundane details of our lives, then we will be prepared to see God in a way that is not hidden. When we see God’s presence in everything, then we are liberated min ha meitzar, from the narrow places that constrict us and weigh upon us. As Leonard Cohen writes in the song “Born in Chains,” we are “out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh’s dream.”
Matthew Gindin is a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).
Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, receives rave reviews. (photo from Chefallen via Wikimedia Commons)
Recently discovered among ancient Persian manuscripts and just smuggled out of Tehran in time for Purim, an anonymous writer analyzes the story of the Book of Esther.
Our community of Jews here in Shushan, Persia, has just happily read the newly written account of events of last year, 350 BCE, in our capital city and other towns in Ahasuerus’ kingdom; how evil Haman rose up against us and, with Mordecai and Queen Esther’s help, we defeated him and all our enemies and now make merry on the great day we call Purim.
This wonderful scroll, megillah in Hebrew, the Book of Esther, has circulated widely and I now offer you my view of this wonderful narrative.
The Book of Esther is an outstanding example of storytelling that will be found in every Jewish household. This tale contains all the timeless literary devices, which we Persian Jews adore: a great story, conflict and suspense, believable characters, foreshadowing and a harmonious structure.
At the opening royal feast, we meet Ahasuerus, the mighty king of Persia and see how hastily he disposes of his wife, Queen Vashti, when she disobeys him, foreshadowing the haste with which he later orders the Jews condemned to death.
Our king doesn’t enjoy being lonely, so he must find a new queen. (At this point I must modestly say that I gave him the suggestion for a beauty contest.) Once it is announced, our lovely Esther – advised by her cousin, Mordecai, not to reveal her Jewishness – wins and marries the monarch. Soon, Mordecai (end of Chapter Two), a minor court official, unearths an assassination plot against the king. Instead of informing Ahasuerus directly, Mordecai lets Esther bring the news. Thus both can win favor with the ruler. Mordecai’s discovery, inscribed in the king’s Book of Chronicles, is pertinent to the story’s development.
The main protagonists – the foolish king, the lovely Esther, the wise Mordecai – have made their appearance. Now, for conflict and tension enter the villain, Haman, in Chapter Three. Everyone must bow to him, but Mordecai refuses. When Haman realizes that Mordecai won’t bow to him because it is against Mordecai’s Jewish faith, he plans to destroy all the Jews as punishment. Lots – purim in Hebrew – are cast to decide the day to carry out his murderous scheme, and the pre-spring month of Adar is chosen for the draw.
To vent his hatred against one recalcitrant Jew, why should Haman want to kill all Jews? But since one woman’s action (Vashti) prompted a law for all women, a precedent has been set for mass retaliation for an individual’s misdemeanor.
Since the insubordinate Mordecai is Jewish, Haman infers that all Jews are disobedient, that their “laws are diverse.” (3:8) Haman persuades Ahasuerus by promising as a result much silver to the royal treasury – booty from the slain Jews.
The chapter concludes. “The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Shushan was perplexed….” (3:15) This passage contains a hint that people in our great city realize that a wrong had been committed against the Jews.
In contrast to the opening revelry, Chapter Four begins with mourning and pathos. Mordecai tells Esther of the coming disaster and asks her to intercede. Fearing for her own life, she hesitates, for she knows no one may come before the king uninvited, on pain of death. Mordecai counters: your fate and that of the Jews are one, he tells her. Perhaps it is for this very reason that she has been made queen.
Esther asks the Jews in Shushan to fast three days; then she will go to the king. Here, at mid-point of the story (5:2), the reversal starts; the heroes rise, and the villain Haman’s fall, commences.
That evening, Esther prepares a banquet for the king, Haman and herself, and postpones her appeal until the following day, when all three will dine again. This artful delay adds suspense and permits the inclusion of yet another strand to the story.
Good narrative demands that some strands that later intersect should at first be left dangling. Three appear at the beginning of Chapter Six. Can Esther save the Jews at the banquet? Will Haman hang Mordecai? Has Mordecai’s loyal service to the king been forgotten?
The writer picks up strand number three. After Esther’s dinner, the insomniac king calls for the Book of Chronicles and realizes that Mordecai hasn’t been rewarded for saving his life once upon a time. The king asks who is in the court. Haman is just about to request that Mordecai be hanged for treason. The king, however, asks Haman how to bestow honors upon a deserving man. The vain Haman, assuming he’s being considered for a reward, suggests that man should ride through Shushan royally clad on horseback while all praise him. Then do so to Mordecai, the king tells Haman. The evil Haman, high-spirited the previous day, hastens home in mourning.
At the second banquet, Esther petitions for her people. The king asks her who is the perpetrator of the planned genocide? Esther points to Haman. Ahasuerus, enraged, leaves. Haman falls on Esther’s couch to beg for mercy. When the king returns, he assumes Haman is attacking the queen. Ahasuerus orders Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai.
At the close of the narrative, the villain has been destroyed, but the evil he has set into motion must be stopped – the planned execution of the Jews will go on as Persian law states that a royal edict cannot be recalled. The most the king can do is give the Jews the right of self-defence. Again, the couriers hasten to deliver the news.
In Chapter Nine the story ends. The Jews defend themselves and are victorious. To the end of the tale, an epilogue is appended. Purim is established as a holiday for all time, a day “of fasting and joy, and of sending portions to another and gifts to the poor.” (9:22)
In our story, all the characters act of their own volition. Inner human drives move them. Unlike other biblical stories, there is no deus ex machina. Not only is God not mentioned in the Book of Esther – the only book in the Bible without the word “God” – there is no hint of any supernatural force.
The book opens with feasting and joy in Shushan and in the palace; it concludes with feasting and joy for the Jews of the realm. Upon this artistically harmonious note concludes the Book of Esther, one of the most perfect narratives in the Bible.
As a child, Curt Leviant spoke ancient Persian fluently. Today he can barely say hello. His most recent book is the short story collection, Zix Zexy Ztories.
On a cloudless, heavenly morning, well before the Almighty turned the dust of the earth into man, he announced the holy days to the assembled Heavenly Hosts. The angels listened solemnly, especially to Yom Kippur. After a few moments of meditation, they burst into a perfectly sublime harmonious hallelujah. The holy days were fashioned; a string of pearls to decorate creation.
There was Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the pious and meditative; Tu b’Shevat for the nature lovers. Simchas Torah for the joyous Chassids; Chanukah for the chauvinists. Passover pleased several groups; the bright-eyed lovers of matzoh balls, and the historically minded.
Yes, all the angels and cherubim and sages yet to be, thundered a mighty “Amen” as the Almighty announced the holiday lineup. All except one, that is. One of the younger angels, his wings still fluffy with down.
“What about the children?” he blurted out. “What about a holiday for the children? It should be a happy day of games and, of course, some special delectable food. And, most of all, noise! It should be the one day in the year when kids may shout to their heart’s content without a giant, adult hand muffling their mouth.”
The Holy One listened with compassionate attention. Then He pronounced, “Yes, I shall invent a happy day just for the children. I shall create an historical situation that seems destined for tragedy, but at the last minute dissolves into deliverance.” (“Just like the Red Sea and the Exodus,” whispered the excited Heavenly Hosts in unison.) “There shall be the essence of evil in the form of a tyrant.” (“Good,” thought the angels, even children must know about evil.) “And the young shall eat triangular cakes and shout as loud as they like at the evil name.” (“If they’re going to be loud and noisy, they may as well holler at evil,” said the Hallelujah Chorus.)
So, on the festival Megillah – the great scroll of the holidays – He who made time itself, inscribed Purim, a holiday for children.
My friend, Herb, a childlike celebrant who’d swap two Passovers and a Chanukah for one Purim, says that if Purim occurred daily, he’d attend shul all year round, as faithfully as the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that shines on the bima. Purim’s got it all, says Herb. “A love story like Ruth, but spiced with suspense. And all the joy of Simchas Torah, with a plot line.”
Herb may be right. Esther is one of the great triumvirates of Jewish heroines. Her two sister heroines are, who else? The militant Yael and Judith. The latter two, you’ll recall, dispatch two of Israel’s enemies to that special Gehenna where Amalekites sing Hatikvah on our holidays. This daring, dynamic duo were simple straight shooters like Annie Oakley. But Esther – ah, there’s a woman of subtlety as well as valor. You won’t find Hadassah ruining her manicure with tent pegs or swords. She’s behind the scenes orchestrating, directing. Totally invisible to her antagonists, she’s the ghostess with the mostest, you might say.
Once Cousin Mordechai alerts her to the peril facing her people, she swings into action. Two lavish banquets – not one, but two – she throws for the king, and Haman of all people. It’s the first Purim Oneg. And, although the Megillah does not spell out the menu, I’m sure Esther laid out a nice kosher spread with plenty of Persian slivovitz and followed by platters of those crisp, little, layered honey cakes.
Esther’s eyes caress the king, those succulent cakes melt in his mouth. They’re eating high on the challah, so to speak.
Haman, the quintessential Amalekite, sits in a corner daydreaming of the gibbet for the Jew, Mordechai. Esther, the supplicant who fantasizes a special Gehenna for Haman, in which he eternally grates potatoes for all the Chanukahs yet to come, pleads with the king for her people, Israel. She gazes tearfully at the king like he’s a titanic honey cake. In the background, we can almost hear a silvery “Taps” – with a klezmer lilt – for Haman the Agegite.
My good friend, Herb, loves to hear this Megillah. As I say, he’s a Purim regular. There he is, every year, with his own grogger, just like the Minyan Club members have their own tallis and tefillin. And he’s carrying one of those neat, silver hip flasks just to make sure he obeys the talmudic injunction to be sufficiently zonked so you can’t tell Haman from Mordechai. Over the whole year – 613 mitzvah opportunities available to him – this is Herb’s finest moment of observance.
Well, I love Purim as much as Herb. On what other holiday can you make obnoxious noises and even talk more than the rabbi without being shushed. I guess, like Herb, I’m a Purim Jew.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer and humorist living in Huntsville, Ala.