Jerusalemites revel during Purim festivities in the downtown neighborhood of Nahlaot.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As a Jewish social activist – one who turns to Jewish sources for motivation and views activism as an integral part of my Jewish identity – rereading the Purim story every year never fails to inspire me.
The theme of social activism runs through the Book of Esther (Megilat Esther), from Vashti in the first verses to Zeresh in the last. This year, upon rereading the book, I was particularly struck not only by the numerous examples of social dissent, but even more so by the archetypical and timeless nature of the responses elicited by this dissent.
Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king (whether nude or clothed, as commentators argue) elicits the obvious emotional response: “therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him” (Esther 1:12).
However, beyond anger, perhaps more interestingly Vashti’s behavior also evokes fear. Memucan, the king’s servant, says: “Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the King Ahashverosh...For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.” Vashti is seen as a threat to all men in the kingdom.
Memucan and his compatriots recognize that Vashti’s action has the power to influence others, and it is this power they fear. When we stand up to an abusive man, we not only stand up for our own rights, but we serve as an example for other women. We create a multiplier effect. We have the power to influence others – from Cush to Tel Aviv (or at least within the range of the media). But take heed: we also run the risk of being banished.
The next example of social dissent in the story is not long in coming. When Mordechai refuses to bow down to the evil Haman, he too elicits anger (“Haman was full of wrath” – Esther 3:5). Here too, the personal is the political. Haman does not direct his anger toward Mordechai alone, but rather extends it to the entire Jewish people. “It seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordechai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordechai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahashverosh” (Esther 3:6). When we refuse to accept authority or to play by the rules, we serve as an example for others to assert themselves and stand up for their rights. But take heed: we also run the risk of collective punishment.
However, the real turning point in the Purim story is when Esther doesn’t just refuse to play by the rules, but decides to use them to benefit her cause. She approaches the king, even though she wasn’t summoned. She learns how to work the system, using banquets and letters and the king’s seal to condemn Haman and reverse the decree against her people. When she understands the enormous responsibility she holds, which comes with her position of power in the palace and her potential access to the king, she emerges as a true heroine.
She becomes a proactive change-agent and activist on behalf of her nation. When we too understand the potential power each of us holds as an individual and as an influencer of others, we too can touch the golden scepter and “have light and gladness, joy and honor,” as the Purim story concludes. But take heed: we also run the risk of success – and here I refer to the part of the book we try to forget, yet every year it appears again reminding us to beware not to let success lead us astray: “And the Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand” (Esther 9:16).
The Book of Esther teaches us the risks of social action, yet also the risk of inaction. It is Mordechai who poses to Esther the existential predicament of every social activist: “For if you hold your peace at this time, relief and deliverance may arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will have perished” (Esther 4:14). The cause we are working toward may (or may not) be achieved without our personal participation, but we know deep inside that we would perish if we did not take responsibility and use our personal power to affect the change we are striving for. We could not live with ourselves if we didn’t join in, stand up, speak out, fight back for what we believe in, even at great personal risk to us and potential collective risk to our families, to our fellow women, to our people.
The most powerful statement in the book for me is when Mordechai says to Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps it is [precisely] for such a time as this that you have arrived at your royal position.” (Esther 4:14). Who knows? Perhaps it is for such a time as this that we have each been placed on this earth. A certain time and a certain place, require of us a certain action for a certain cause. May you too find inspiration for your social activism this year in the Purim manifesto.
The author is a teacher and deputy director of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture.