The unmasking of Purim

As with all of our heroes and holidays, Purim is a complex combination of grief and glory, tragedy and triumph.

Hamantaschen cookies for Purim, "Oznei Haman" in Hebrew ‏ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hamantaschen cookies for Purim, "Oznei Haman" in Hebrew ‏
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On the surface, Purim is the feel-good capital of the Jewish holidays, what with the wild revelry of the masquerade parties, the drink-till-you-drop feasting, and the over-the-top parades that raucously fill Israel’s streets.
Why, it’s even the one time when kids and adults are actually encouraged to make noise in the synagogue! And the story line of Purim? It’s straight out of a Disney movie: Idyllic Jewish community enjoys a cushy Diaspora life until evil villain appears on the scene, determined to kill them all. From nowhere comes a beautiful young girl, her real identity masked – just like any good super-hero – who miraculously becomes the princess. At just the right moment, she unmasks, convinces the king to undo the nefarious plot and execute the plotters, and saves her people.
And they all live happily ever after.
But a lot more is going on here than meets the eye. A deeper look at Purim – stop here if you hate reading the fine print – reveals a plethora of intriguing, even embarrassing, questions. We can start with Esther, the maidel who would be queen. At the very least, she is forced against her will into the harem of Ahasuerus, a voracious womanizer with no great love of the Jews. (The Talmud records that Ahasuerus enthusiastically went along with Haman’s planned genocide, even refusing to take the generous bribe offered him by Haman in order to secure royal approval for the plan.) But Esther’s plight is even more tragic if we accept the rabbis’ claim that Esther was actually married to Mordecai.
Now, she is guilty of adultery – a cardinal sin which, by Jewish law, requires martyrdom – when she voluntarily goes to meet the king, whose tete-a-tetes are notoriously of a sexual nature. Esther understands the impossibility of her situation, expressed in her poignant cry to Mordecai, “I shall surely be lost forever!” I often ask myself, “How would this whole splendid scenario play in Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak?!” Jewish girl is taken by non-Jewish ruler, lives with him, and even has a child by him.
Would that union be celebrated eternally in haredi circles? Does the end justify the means? The Jews, for their part, don’t come off too well, either. They are tossed about throughout the story like powerless pawns by Haman and Ahasuerus, forced to submit to the menace of one while begging for the mercy of the other. Indeed, one of the reasons why we omit the saying of the Hallel prayers of praise on Purim – customarily recited on every Jewish holiday – is that we remained, even at story’s end, under the subjugation of the Persian Empire.
Yet the rabbis, after long debate, finally decided to canonize the story of Esther and add it to our national calendar for posterity. I suggest they reached that decision for two crucial reasons.
First, something radical and revolutionary occurs near the end of the megila. Perhaps for the first time in the life of the Jews in the Diaspora, we are given the right to form our own army and defend ourselves. Ahasuerus does not deign to dispose of the murderers bent on our destruction, claiming that an official edict, once sealed, can never be rescinded. But he does grant our petition to be allowed to take up arms and fight our own battle, and this we do with IDFlike courage and conviction, killing 75,500 of our enemies and erasing the existential threat against our lives.
This flash of independence is a beacon for our future, when we would have the means and the moxie to lay low any and all who would endanger our survival.
Indeed, the megila winks at the time to come: When the Jews of Persia first learn of Haman’s nefarious plot, they are in a state of deep despair and anxiety. “And the city of Shushan was nabocha, bewildered,” or simply put, a nebuch.
But later, when we fought back and wiped out our foes, the opposite sentiment prevails: “And the city of Shushan ’tzahala v’samecha,’ rejoiced and celebrated.” ”Tzahala,” I offer you, with rabbinic license – is related to the word Tzahal – an army of our own.
And then the final, hidden chapter of the megila gives it its true and lasting significance.
Esther and Ahasuerus have a child, Darius, and he rises to the throne upon Ahasuerus’s death.
Darius decrees that the building of the second Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed 70 years ago, may now begin. He thus reaffirms the order originally given by Cyrus 18 years previously, and suspended by Ahasuerus’s first wife, Vashti. The center of Jewish life, soon enough, will return to our eternal capital.
It is in this merit that the story of Purim achieves permanent value, and why it is the only event which occurs in Diaspora Jewish history, from the Exodus to the present, that is commemorated annually by the Jews of every community.
The underlying theme of the Purim story is hiddenness. The holiday’s proof text is named after Esther – we could easily have called it Megilat Mordecai or Igeret Hapurim, the Purim letter – because the very name “Esther” connotes that which is un-revealed, that which lies beneath the surface. For while the narrative of the story seems to unfold in a rational – albeit captivating – manner, the preponderance of seemingly “random” events tells us that this spectacular saga is anything but haphazard. To wit: It “just happens” that Queen Vashti develops a mysterious disease that prevents her from appearing before the king, resulting in her dismissal and beheading; it “just happens” that Esther – described by the sages as less than beautiful, with a greenish complexion – is chosen as the new queen; it “just happens” that Mordecai overhears the plot to assassinate the king, and saves the monarch’s life; it “just happens” that the king cannot sleep on the very night that Haman enters his courtyard, leading to the reward of Mordecai at Haman’s expense. And on and on.
Not for nothing does the Talmud say, in response to the question, “Where can Esther be found within the Torah?” that the identifying verse is, “On that day I shall surely conceal – Hester Astir – my countenance!” The true messages of Purim, like golden nuggets, are to be discovered only upon digging deep beneath the text. And what was true then is no less true now.
When things happen seemingly without rhyme or reason – the intra-Arab fighting taking place all around us, or the proliferation of terrorism world-wide are perfect examples – the wise person will look beyond the superficial to connect the dots and perceive a masterful Divine plan at work. Indeed, the glaring absence of God’s name within the megila is seen by the rabbis as an indication that God is everywhere in this story, and so mentioning His name only at various junctures would be superfluous.
The name of the holiday itself – “Purim,” which means lots – is an ironic challenge to all those who would believe that life is just a lottery, where chance, rather than Divine design, dictates the outcome of events.
As with all of our heroes and holidays, Purim is a complex combination of grief and glory, tragedy and triumph. But in the end, the overriding ideas of heavenly assistance, Jewish independence and the expression of the Jewish national destiny in Israel, serve to justify the sages’ decision to uphold Purim as a national day of celebration.
Particularly in our own day, when we are privileged to witness the pride of a revitalized state, a magnificent Israeli army and a largely rebuilt Jerusalem of Gold, each of us has “lots” to celebrate! Purim Sameach!
The writer directs the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and is a member of the Ra’anana City Council