ESTHER DENOUNCING Haman’ (1888) by English painter Ernest Normand.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ahh, the Exile: So comfy, so cushy – and yet so constantly catastrophic.
The Purim story is the archetypal Disney fairy tale, with all the trimmings: an idyllic setting in a faraway kingdom, the rise of a nasty villain who threatens to destroy us, the emergence of a biblical-style hero and, at center stage, a beautiful heroine who captures the king’s heart and rescues her people in dramatic fashion. Throw in some palace intrigue, an attempted assassination and various sexual innuendos, and it’s all there in Megilat Esther.
But the Megila is much more than a light and fluffy romp through Never- Never Land. It has layer upon layer of plots within the plot and fascinating twists and turns that make it eternally interesting.
I’ve always found it amazing that a tale of an innocent young woman from a prestigious Jewish family, taken against her will and forced into an intermarriage with a Jew-hating despot, plays so well in the bastions of ultra-Orthodoxy. Seeing young girls dressed up like Queen Esther in the streets of Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak, Golders Green and Borough Park, leads me to wonder, “Is this really the fate you’d love to see for your own precious, precocious little maidele
Esther’s dilemma is magnified exponentially by the Talmud’s strong contention that Mordecai was not only her cousin, but her husband as well. This places her in a halachically impossible predicament, particularly when Mordecai presses her to “visit” the king to plead for the lives of her fellow Jews. Such visits invariably included much more than just tea and crumpets, particularly with Ahasuerus, who was famed for his voracious sexual appetite. Esther argues, in vain, that she is forbidden to voluntarily submit to another man; indeed, Jewish law requires no less than martyrdom in such a situation. It is at this point that Mordecai – who the Talmud says was a member of the Sanhedrin, and certainly an expert in Halacha – delivers his famous speech, “Who knows if you were not elevated to such a high position precisely for this purpose?”
The rabbis struggle mightily to find an “out” for Esther, some legal loophole that would justify her violation of one of Judaism’s supreme moral laws. Some suggest that her complete passivity during intimacy – “like a lifeless clod of earth” – excused the act; others offer that she committed “a sin for a higher purpose,” a very tenuous condition justifying unlawful behavior in extreme circumstances. But Esther herself is never comfortable with Mordecai’s directive, and so she tells him, “I shall be lost, I shall surely be lost.”
Esther does approach the king, and bids him to come to not one but two parties that she arranges. Curiously, she also invites archenemy Haman to attend, a fact that mystifies the commentators. Some suggest she did this so that Haman could be right there when the trap is sprung, preventing his escape. Others say that Esther did not want her fellow Jews to think that they “have a sister in the palace,” who would take care of everything; she wanted them involved, praying and fasting for God’s help, and so inviting Haman would scare them into thinking that Esther may have “cut a deal” to save her own skin.
But the most dramatic and poignant opinion is that Esther’s plan was to “make eyes” at Haman in front of the king, leading him to believe that the two of them were carrying on an illicit relationship. This, Esther hoped, would cause a jealous Ahasuerus to execute both Haman and her, thus neatly solving all the problems at once. Of course, that’s not what happens; while Haman is indeed done away with, Esther remains queen. She and Ahasuerus will have a child, Darius II, who will renew Cyrus’s permission for the Jews to rebuild the Temple.
But Esther, helplessly trapped in that hopeless marriage, joins the ranks of tragic Jewish heroines whose courageous sacrifice ensures our survival.
The Talmud relates that once the Jewish people left Egypt and entered Israel, no event occurring outside of the Holy Land – regardless of its miraculous nature or its resultant rescue of Jews – may be canonized into eternal commemoration. The Hanukka story, the Book of Ruth, Yom Ha’atzmaut, yes, because these occurred within the confines of Israel. But how did Purim “sneak” in?
The connection to the eventual rebuilding of the Temple is certainly one justification. But I believe there is another message here that is of such import that the rabbis made an exception for Megilat Esther to be added to the books of the Bible. No matter how comfortable we may feel, no matter how rich our portfolios may be, no matter how close we may come to the seat of power – be it a Maimonides as royal physician, Don Isaac Abravanel as royal adviser, or Jared Kushner as anointed prince – our position in the Diaspora is perilous and precarious. History has proven, again and again, that a reversal of our fortune may lurk right around the corner.
Any feeling of unassailable safety and security, in even the most benevolent corner of the Exile is, well, just another Purim mask. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]