Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.