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.”






With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.