THE MEGILLAH is conspicuous as much for its hiddenness as it is for its heroics..
(photo credit: SUSSIE WEISS)
If a vote on the subject were ever to be taken, the soon-to-be-celebrated Purim might very well be elected Judaism’s favorite holiday. It has everything going for it: the costumes, the parades, the raucous, drink-till-you-drop feasts and parties, the fairy-like tale of the beautiful princess who bests the nefarious villain. What other Jewish holiday actually encourages synagogue-goers to create a ruckus with every conceivable type of noisemaker? But beneath the mirth and the merry-making, Purim is filled with mystery; the Megillah is conspicuous as much for its hiddenness as it is for its heroics.
An initial reading of the Book of Esther seems to follow the classic, Shakespearean-style pattern of the rise and fall of larger-than-life characters. Persia’s Jewish community enjoys the favor of the king, invited as they are to Achashverosh’s royal banquet, which even features (glatt) kosher cuisine prepared specially for them. Esther’s selection as queen of the harem – a position made vacant when the previous queen Vashti uncharacteristically snubs her husband – along with Mordechai’s status as trusted adviser to the monarch, seems to cement their place in this most excellent of exiles; the Jews have definitely “made it.” But then, things start to go sour and Jewish fortunes rapidly go south. Haman’s star ascends and the king is swayed by the age-old demonization and denunciations of the Jews. “There is a certain people,” Haman convinces the king, who are dispersed, disloyal and dangerous, a foreign element that must be uprooted and expunged for the good of the kingdom. Suddenly, the Jews fall into deep depression as they learn of their impending demise.
But all is not lost! Happy coincidence, it seems, comes to our rescue. Mordechai is found to have saved the king’s life, an act that has somehow gone unrewarded. Esther’s refusal to reveal her lineage creates an air of mystery and enchantment that makes her irresistible to the king. Haman, in his lust for power, oversteps his bounds and arouses Achashverosh’s suspicions. And when Haman – suspiciously included in Esther’s private party with the king – lunges at the queen, the scoundrel ends up being hanged on the very gallows he built to execute Mordechai. The pieces of the puzzle come neatly together and Persian Jewry manages to dodge the proverbial bullet.
All this makes us wonder: Does coincidence, randomness, luck and lottery drive the world? Or is something else, something below the surface – or far above our vision – in play?
The rabbis subtly try to answer this question by ruling that the story of Esther – unique among the five Megillot associated with the Jewish holidays – should be read not once, but twice. For it is only in a second reading, when we already know the outcome of the story, that we can go back and connect the dots that seem far too improbable to be the result of mere happenstance or typical palace intrigue. The princess – whose real name was Hadassa – is dubbed “Esther,” a word that means “concealed” and is pointedly used in the Torah to denote God “hiding His face.” They institute, somewhere along the line, the custom of wearing masks, or costumes, to send the clear message that Truth is often not readily apparent, but secreted behind multiple layers of cloth and cover.
They give this holiday the intriguing, thought-provoking name Purim (lots), ostensibly based on Haman’s “random” selection of Adar as the date for his pogrom, a month he reckoned would be unlucky for the Jews, as it included the date of Moses’ death. The rabbis wanted us, I suggest, to ponder over the proposition: Is there a guiding hand to the universe, or do events simply happen haphazardly, as if by chance?
IT’S WORTHWHILE to take a moment to consider this question, because it goes right to the core of our faith system. How is it that we Jews have survived for so long? Is this consistent with the actuarial tables of history? How did we manage to outlive the great civilizations, particularly those who determinedly set about to eliminate us? How did we maintain an unbroken tradition, based upon an ancient set of laws and legends, a tradition that transcended land and language and succeeded in binding us together across the continents and across the centuries? How did we, a broken and battered people, not only return to our ancient homeland after being the victim of history’s most horrible crime, but turn it into a blooming paradise, currently the eighth most powerful country on Earth? How did we win war after war, overcome crisis after crisis, retain our identity and live normal lives while surrounded by threats on all sides? Was it just our smarts, or superior strategy that brought us to where we are today? Or was it something else, something more cosmic than conventional, something more infinite than inevitable?
The delicious Hebrew word goral has two very distinct, almost diametrically opposed meanings. It can be translated as “chance” or “lot,” as in the lots chosen by Haman. But it can also mean “destiny,” something that is ordained; a sacred mission that informs us throughout the ages and one which we are directed, come what may, to fulfill.
Purim beckons us to look under the mask and beyond the masquerade to discover the true face of our reality.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. firstname.lastname@example.org
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