Esther: the Book, the Woman, the power shifts.

The book of Esther is one of the last to be added to the Hebrew canon, for a number of reasons, not least that the name of God does not appear in it.  The book is a puzzle, filled with allusions and hinting at hidden depths. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from the Hebrew root ‘s.t.r’ meaning ‘to conceal’ although it may of course be a Hebrew form of the name Ishtar the Babylonian goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality, or the Persian ‘satarah’ meaning a star.

It is also a book whose meaning is to be understood not at the surface level of the p’shat. Placed within the final section of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), the Ketuvim, it is firmly in the realm of ‘writings’ rather than ‘word of God’.  This book is not history in the sense of recording events that happened – it is history in the sense of revealing a continuing truth that speaks to each generation.

The book begins in the Persian capital of Shushan, with the King Ahasuerus hosting an enormous banquet for the nobles and princes of his province, a banquet which then grew to include the others in the fortress. Meanwhile Vashti the queen hosted her own banquet for the women and all went well until the King decided to require Vashti to come show herself and her great beauty to his guests, wearing the Royal crown. Vashti said no. Now much has been written about Vashti – how she was a feminist icon, her own woman.  Rabbinic tradition tells that she refused because she understood that she had been asked to come wearing ONLY the crown. Or that she had a tail!  There is also a midrash that says that Vashti was more royal than her husband (according to this she was the orphaned daughter of Belshazzar and Ahasuerus had been the steward in the stables of her father) and so she refused to obey him and show off the regal regalia.  Whatever her reason, Vashti said no and this sent the men’s banqueting company into a panic. The king and his advisors are worried that if she gets away with her refusal to obey her husband, then other women will get the idea that they too will not have to be compliant and obedient to theirs, and then who knows what would happen?

So Vashti is banished (some say executed) – not primarily for her act of disobedience, but “pour encourager les autres” ie to compel others not to copy her behaviour.  The text is unabashed and very clearly about the submission of women to men: “When the king’s decree will be published throughout the great kingdom, all wives will give honour to their husbands….and he sent letters…that every man should rule in his own house”.

When the king had calmed down (and we presume sobered up) he realised that he would want feminine company now that Vashti had gone, and his advisors once again had the solution. “Let there be sought for the king young virgins fair to look on, and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom so that they may gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan the fortress to the house of the women…and let ointments be given them, and let the maiden that pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti” and this advice pleased the king. Choosing a wife in this way would mean choosing a young unformed girl who could be moulded to fit the wishes of her husband.

Esther appears as one of these virgins collected for the beauty contest whose prize was to be consort to the king. We meet her as an orphan, the daughter of Avihail and cousin of Mordecai, a Benjaminite. We learn very little about her as a person, but we find that she is described as beautiful that she is obedient to Mordecai’s instruction not to reveal her identity or Jewishness, that she finds favour in the eyes of the eunuch responsible for the women and she appears to be compliant with all that is asked of her.  The text also tells us that Mordecai is able to walk every day before the court of the women’s house, to know how Esther did, and what would become of her – unbelievable in any harem setting, and yet critical to the narrative. Mordecai retains control over Esther in this way  even though she is being groomed for the king.

Four years after the beauty contest had begun, Esther went to the King and he loved her and made her queen by placing the crown on her head, a worthy replacement for the beautiful Vashti.  And still Esther kept her Jewishness hidden, “for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him”.

The narrative turns to a story whereby Mordecai discovers a plot against the king, who tells Esther, who in turn tells the king and clearly cites that the information came from Mordecai – but not apparently with the added information that he is a blood relative – and so the conspirators are examined, found guilty, and executed; and Mordecai’s name written in the book of chronicles of the king. Yet apparently no reward is given…..

Now we turn to Haman the Agagite, who is promoted above all the other princes and advisors and the king commands that everyone shall bow down before him. And so of course, everyone does – everyone but Mordecai – who said it was against his religion to bow down to a person. Haman decided to be rid of all the Jews in the empire.

This is five years after Esther had become queen – five years where she had not divulged her yichus, nor it seems has had a child. The king seems to be continuing with sampling the beautiful young virgins of the empire, and according to the Midrash Esther was not only keeping Shabbat (by virtue of having seven maidservants so that she always knew what day of the week it was), not only keeping kashrut as an early adopter of vegetarianism, but was also taking instruction from Mordecai about the laws of family purity – for what else would he be doing by walking in the by the court of the women’s house except keeping her on the halachic straight and narrow?

Lots (purim) were cast by Haman to decide the most propitious date for the pogrom against the Jews – it would be in Adar, eleven months hence. Haman set his trap. He told the King that “there is a certain people scattered and dispersed in all the provinces of your empire, and they have different laws from others, and they don’t obey your laws. It isn’t a good idea for you to have them in the empire, so set a decree that they should be destroyed, and I will pay a lot of silver into your treasury.  The King simply took his signet ring and gave it to Haman, saying that both the silver and the people were Haman’s to do whatever wanted. It seems a passive response, and inexplicable that the King would have refused the money raised from allowing the pogrom. And yet the narrative is unperturbed.

The decree was sent out throughout the empire, permitting the people to “destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.”  The King and Haman settled down to drink and the text records that the fortress of Shushan was perplexed. To them, if not to the narrator, this seemed bizarre.

Mordecai clothed himself in mourning clothing of sackcloth and ashes and paraded through the city and at the gate of the king. Through Hatach, a chamberlain of the King, Esther found out what was happening and Mordecai sent her a copy of the decree with the instruction that now was the time to go to the King and beg mercy for her people. But Esther told him she couldn’t. Unless the king summoned her she was at risk of death for approaching him; and worse – she hadn’t been summoned for a month – maybe she was losing her position in his affections.

But Mordecai’s words were chilling. “Don’t think you will survive safely if the rest of the Jews are attacked. You and your descendants will perish, even though deliverance will surely come from somewhere. And anyway, who knows, maybe this is the reason you have been led to your position in the harem?”

Esther seems to come into her own. In the first, and only, nod to religious ritual in the story, she demands that the Jews should fast for her for three days, and decides that she too will fast along with her handmaids, and after that she will go into the king unbidden. “And if I perish, I perish”. Sadly the midrash glosses this taking of power back into submission: the Babylonian tradition understands that Esther was in fact the wife of Mordecai as well as his cousin. This would mean her living in the harem of the king would constitute adultery, the punishment of which would be death. However, one could make the case for her being compelled to live with the king, and therefore the punishment mitigated, but should she voluntarily approach the king then this case fails and Esther becomes an adulteress and forbidden forever to Mordecai. Poor Esther, being asked to remove the lifesaving defence of compulsion….

But for now the tables are turned. Mordecai goes on his way “and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.” The power dynamic shifts – for now.

Esther approaches the King successfully and asks him to come with Haman for a feast that very day. At the feast, the king again asks her what she wants, and she replies that she will tell him tomorrow, if he comes again with Haman to another feast. Haman is overjoyed to be included in the feasting, but his mood darkens when he sees Mordecai at the gate, still refusing to bow to him. He keeps his cool and goes home where he tells his friends and Zeresh his wife of all the honours that have come his way, but says he cannot enjoy them as long as “Mordecai the Jew” is sitting at the gate. Zeresh and the friends offer advice – he should have a gallows built immediately, then in the morning get the permission from the king to hang Mordecai, and after that he will be able to enjoy his good fortune and high status.

But that night – another plot twist! The king cannot sleep, he asks for the book of records to be read to him and finds that Mordecai was never repaid for his information about the plot against the life of the king. Haman, come early to get permission for the hanging of Mordecai, is invited to offer suggestions on “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honour?” and Haman, so certain of his favour in the court asked himself: ‘Whom would the king delight to honour besides myself?’ and comes up with no contender. Thinking the king wants to honour him he suggests that such a man should be dressed by other noble princes in regal clothing complete with crown, settled on a horse and taken through the city with the proclamation “This is being done for a man that the king wishes to honour”

The king is delighted with the suggestion and tells Haman to carry it out on Mordecai. Afterwards Mordecai returned to the king’s gate and the humiliated Haman goes home. Haman’s friends and wife tell him that if Mordecai the Jew has prevailed over him, then it is a sign that he will fail in his quest to destroy all the Jews of the empire. At that moment, before he can really process the information, the servants come to take him to Esther’s banquet.

And it is getting worse for Haman. For the king now asks Esther what it is that she wants, and she replies that she would like her life and the life of her people who are condemned to be killed. When the king asks who has condemned them, she answers quite bluntly ‘An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.’

Haman is terrified. The king is furious. Esther is silent. The king goes into the garden to think, and Haman pleads for his life before the queen. In a moment of farce the king returns from the palace garden “into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the couch where Esther was. Then said the king: ‘Will he even force the queen before me in the house?’ ”

What happened while the king was outside? Did Esther engineer the situation as a tableau before his return? Did Haman trip and fall on her? The text doesn’t tell us. But we know now that Esther, compliant and beautiful, has also been strategic and thoughtful in getting her request met. She is not an ignorant young girl at this point, but a mature woman who has been queen for some time…

Haman is taken out and hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai, a lovely tidy twist to the story. His house was given to Esther, who also told the king of her relationship with Mordecai. Mordecai was promoted and given the king’s signet ring that had originally been given to Haman. And curiously it is Esther who then sets Mordecai over the house of Haman. No doubt now who is the boss in that relationship.

Esther then works to reverse the decree against the Jews engineered by Haman. She cries before the king and asks him to write new letters contradicting the original orders to destroy the Jews. But he cannot for the king’s letters signed with the king’s seal are immutable. Instead he suggests that as Esther is now in charge of the house of Haman, she and Mordecai can now send out other letters also signed with the seal of the king to inform them that “the king had granted to the Jews in every city that they gather themselves together and stand for their life, to destroy and to slay and to cause to perish all the forces of the people and the province that would assault them, their children and women, and to take the spoils.” They were to do this on one day – the 13th day of Adar.

This was seen as a great day for the Jews and many people in the Empire converted to Judaism. So when the date for the pogrom came around all the king’s officers were on the side of the Jews and it seems that there were relatively few enemies to slay throughout the empire – 75 thousand in total in that huge expanse of territory – except in Shushan itself. There 500 men and the ten sons of Haman were killed on the 13th Adar and 300 more on the 14th Adar but no spoils were taken.

The book then concludes with an explanation of the festival of Purim, to be kept throughout the generations and tells us that “Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote down all the acts of power, to confirm this second letter of Purim.” And that “the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.”

Power seems to be firmly in the hands of Esther, but the book ends with an addendum that “For Mordecai the Jew was second to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his fellows; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”

So what do we, as modern women, make of the story of Esther and the festival of Purim which the book attempts to explain?

We see that a vulnerable orphaned girl ends up a powerful woman. Having been compliant and obedient, passive in the hands of the men around her, she later reveals herself as being a woman with a shrewd strategic mind, who ends the story as a woman of great power and control, the owner of Haman’s estates, the writer of letters in the name of the King.

In this she forms a literary counter to Vashti, the woman who began the story with great power but whose choice to refuse her husband’s wishes in a public snub made her the ultimate powerless ‘outsider’.

But Esther does not use her tactical instincts and rise up to defend her people until she is reminded that even living in the palace would not protect her from sharing the fate decreed for her people. Only the realisation that she too is vulnerable makes her act.  In this we might see the pattern of abused women everywhere whose lack of confidence cause them to lose agency and accept with painful passivity until the moment when they finally realise the lack of choice – to act or to die.

It is generally accepted that the book of Esther is a late book, probably written @4th century BCE and it seems to be a polemic written for diaspora Jews to remind them that life will always be hard, there will always be people who hate them in the lands they are living in, and yet unlike modern rhetoric the book seems to be adding to this information that there are ways of dealing with this situation: contact with government, integration into the society, walking the fine line between accepting the mores of the country and taking a principled stand to retain Jewish identity.

I am always struck by the line from the havdalah service – the Jews had light, gladness joy and honour – so may we also” which is a reference to the book of Esther. It is placed liturgically at one of the most frightening times of the week, when Shabbat is going out and we are to face the world again, with all its uncertainty. The ‘extra soul’ departs until the following week, we are bereft and diminished. And we comfort ourselves with the words that come from the end of the book after all the fighting and fear that the Jews of the empire faced. Essentially we repeat each week that living in Diaspora is insecure, and yet we can do it. And more than that, we can grow in confidence and skills just like Esther.

written for Beit Deborah magazine

illustration from BL Hebrew Project digitised collection – the beauty parade with Esther

Esther: il libro, la donna, i cambi di potere.

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 marzo 2019

 

Il libro di Esther è uno degli ultimi ad essere stati aggiunti al canone ebraico, per una serie di motivi, non ultimo il fatto che il nome di Dio in esso non compare. Il libro è un puzzle, pieno di allusioni e indizi nascosti in profondità. Persino il nome dell’eroina eponima, Esther, deriva dalla radice ebraica “str” ​​che significa “nascondere” sebbene possa essere naturalmente una forma ebraica del nome Ishtar, la dea babilonese dell’amore, della guerra, della fertilità e della sessualità, o possa derivare dal persiano ‘satarah’ che significa stella.

 

È anche un libro il cui significato non si comprende restando al livello superficiale dello peshat (uno dei quattro metodi esegetici del testo, corrispondente al significato letterale, ndt). Il libro Ketuvim, gli Agiografi, collocato all’interno della sezione finale del Tanach (la Bibbia ebraica), è saldamente nel regno degli “scritti” invece  che in quello della “parola di Dio”. Questo libro non è storia nel senso di registrazione di eventi accaduti: è storia nel senso di rivelazione di una verità continua che parla ad ogni generazione.

 

Il libro inizia nella capitale persiana di Shushan, con il re Assuero che ospita un enorme banchetto per i nobili e i principi della sua provincia, un banchetto che poi cresce fino a includere altri nella fortezza. Nel frattempo Vashti, la regina, organizza il proprio banchetto per le donne e tutto va bene finché il re non decide di chiedere a Vashti di venire a mostrarsi,  e mostrare la sua grande bellezza agli ospiti, indossando la corona reale. Vashti dice di no. Ora, molto è stato scritto su Vashti: su come sia un’icona femminista, una donna che appartiene a se stessa. La tradizione rabbinica dice che lei rifiuta perché capisce che le era stato chiesto di venire SOLO con la corona. O che avesse una coda! Vashti era più reale di suo marito, racconta un midrash in base al quale ella era la figlia orfana di Baldassarre, mentre Assuero era stato il maggiordomo nelle stalle di suo padre, e così lei rifiuta di obbedirgli e mostrare le insegne regali. Qualunque fosse la sua ragione, Vashti dice di no e questo manda la compagnia degli uomini al banchetto nel panico. Il re ed i suoi consiglieri sono preoccupati che se lei si allontana rifiutando di obbedire al marito, allora le altre donne avranno l’idea che anche loro potranno non essere obbedienti ai loro, e poi chissà che cosa potrebbe succedere?

 

Quindi Vashti viene bandita (alcuni dicono giustiziata), non principalmente per il suo atto di disobbedienza, ma per il suo “encourager les autres”, lo si fa quindi per evitare che altre donne imitino il suo comportamento. Il testo è sfacciato e molto chiaro sulla sottomissione delle donne agli uomini: “Quando il decreto del re sarà pubblicato in tutto il grande regno, tutte le mogli daranno onore ai loro mariti … e invierà lettere … che ogni uomo dovrebbe governare nella sua propria casa”.

 

Quando il re si fu calmato (e presumibilmente era tornato sobrio) si rese conto che avrebbe voluto una compagnia femminile ora che Vashti se n’era andata, e che i suoi consiglieri avevano ancora una volta la soluzione. “Si cerchino per il re, giovani vergini, belle da vedere, e che il re nomini ufficiali in tutte le province del suo regno perché riuniscano tutte le belle e giovani vergini a Shushan, la fortezza, nella casa delle donne … e che siano dati loro unguenti, e che la fanciulla che piace al re sia regina invece di Vashti” e questo consiglio piacque al re. Scegliere una moglie in questo modo avrebbe significato scegliere una giovane ragazza non ancora formata che avrebbe potuto essere modellata per soddisfare i desideri di suo marito.

 

Esther appare come una di queste vergini raccolte per il concorso di bellezza il cui premio era di essere consorte del re. La incontriamo come un’orfana, la figlia di Avihail e cugina di Mordechai, un Beniaminita. Sappiamo molto poco su di lei come persona, ma scopriamo che è descritta come bella e che è ubbidiente alle istruzioni di Mordechai di non rivelare la sua identità o ebraicità, che trova favore negli occhi dell’eunuco responsabile delle donne e sembra accondiscendere a tutte le richieste che le vengono poste. Il testo ci dice anche che Mordechai è in grado di camminare ogni giorno davanti al cortile della casa delle donne, per sapere come stia Esther e cosa ne sarà di lei, cosa incredibile per un qualsiasi harem, e tuttavia critica per la narrazione. Mordechai mantiene il controllo su Esther in questo modo anche mentre la stanno preparando per il re.

 

Quattro anni dopo che la gara di bellezza era iniziata, Esther andò dal re e lui la amò e la fece regina mettendo la corona sulla sua testa, degna sostituta della bellissima Vashti. E ancora Esther teneva nascosta la sua ebraicità, “perchè Esther obbediva al comando di Mordechai, come quando era cresciuta con lui”.

 

La narrazione si trasforma in una storia in cui Mordechai scopre un complotto contro il re, lo racconta a Esther, che a sua volta lo racconta al re e cita chiaramente che l’informazione viene da Mordechai, ma apparentemente non aggiunge l’informazione di essergli consanguinea, e così i cospiratori sono esaminati, vengono giudicati colpevoli e giustiziati; e il nome di Mordechai viene scritto nel libro delle cronache del re. Eppure a quanto pare non viene data alcuna ricompensa…

 

Ora ci rivolgiamo ad Haman l’Agagita, che era stato promosso al di sopra di tutti gli altri principi e consiglieri e il re comandò che tutti si inchinassero davanti a lui. E così, naturalmente tutti fecero, tutti tranne Mordechai, che disse che inchinarsi davanti a una persona era contro la sua religione. Haman decise di sbarazzarsi di tutti gli ebrei nell’impero.

 

Sono passati cinque anni da quando Esther era diventata regina,  cinque anni in cui non aveva reso noto il suo yichus, né sembra che avesse avuto un figlio. Il re continuava a provare le belle giovani vergini dell’impero, e secondo il midrash Esther non stava solo osservando lo Shabbat (in virtù di avere sette schiave in modo da sapere sempre in quale giorno della settimana fosse), non solo osservando la casherut, come una dei primi ad adottare il vegetarianismo, ma stava anche ricevendo istruzioni da Mordechai sulle leggi della purezza familiare, per quale altro motivo egli sarebbe entrato nella corte della casa delle donne se non per mantenerla strettamente in linea con le regole halachiche?

 

Haman tirò delle sorti (purim) per decidere la data più propizia per il pogrom contro gli ebrei: sarebbe stato ad Adar, dopo undici mesi. Haman pose la sua trappola. Disse al Re “c’è un certo popolo disperso in tutte le province del vostro impero, e ha leggi diverse dagli altri, e non obbedisce alle vostre leggi. Non è una buona idea per voi averlo nell’impero, quindi stabilite un decreto per distruggerlo, e io aggiungerò molto argento al vostro tesoro. Il Re semplicemente prese il suo anello col sigillo e lo diede ad Haman, dicendo che sia l’argento sia il popolo erano di Haman e che avrebbe potuto farne qualsiasi cosa volesse. Il rifiuto del re di accettare il denaro raccolto per permettere il pogrom sembra una risposta passiva, e inspiegabile. Eppure la narrazione è imperturbata.

 

Il decreto fu inviato in tutto l’impero, permettendo al popolo di “distruggere, uccidere e far morire tutti gli ebrei, giovani e meno giovani, bambini e donne in un solo giorno, nel tredicesimo giorno del dodicesimo mese, che è il mese di Adar, e fare bottino. “Il re e Haman si accomodarono per bere e il testo riporta che la fortezza di Shushan era perplessa. Per loro, se non per il narratore, questo sembrava strano.

 

Mordechai si rivestì di abiti da lutto di sacco e di cenere e sfilò per la città e alla porta del re. Attraverso Hatach, un ciambellano del re, Esther scoprì cosa stava succedendo e Mordechai le mandò una copia del decreto con le istruzioni che ora era il momento di andare dal re e chiedere pietà per il suo popolo. Ma Esther gli disse che non poteva: era a rischio di esser messa a morte se si fosse avvicinata a lui a meno che il re stesso non l’avesse chiamata e, peggio ancora, non era stata convocata da un mese,  forse stava perdendo la sua posizione negli affetti del re.

 

Ma le parole di Mordechai erano agghiaccianti. “Non pensare che sopravvivrai in sicurezza se il resto degli ebrei sarà attaccato. Tu e la tua discendenza perirete, anche se la liberazione da qualche parte sicuramente arriverà. E comunque, chissà, forse questa è la ragione per cui sei stata condotta nella tua posizione nell’harem?”.

 

Esther mostra le proprie qualità. Nel primo, e unico, cenno del rituale religioso nella storia, chiede che gli ebrei digiunino per lei per tre giorni, e decide che anche lei digiunerà insieme alle sue ancelle, e dopo di ciò andrà dal re senza nascondersi. “E se perisco, perisco”. Purtroppo il midrash rimprovera questa presa di potere alla sottomissione: la tradizione babilonese intende che Esther fosse in effetti la moglie di Mordechai e sua cugina. Ciò significherebbe che la sua vita nell’harem del re costituirebbe adulterio, la cui punizione sarebbe la morte. Tuttavia, si potrebbe giustificare il fatto che fosse costretta a vivere con il re, e quindi la punizione era attenuata, ma se lei si fosse avvicinata volontariamente al re, allora questo caso non avrebbe ragione d’essere e Esther diventerebbe un’adultera e quindi proibita per sempre a Mordechai. Povera Esther, le viene chiesto di rimuovere la difesa salvavita della costrizione ….

 

Ma per ora le carte in tavola sono diverse. Mordechai andò per la sua strada “e fece tutto quello che Esther gli aveva comandato”. Al momento la dinamica del potere è spostata.

 

Esther si avvicina al re con successo e gli chiede di venire con Haman per una festa proprio quel giorno. Alla festa, il re le chiede di nuovo ciò che vuole, e lei risponde che glielo dirà l’indomani, se verrà di nuovo con Haman ad un’altra festa. Haman è felicissimo di essere incluso nel banchetto, ma il suo umore si oscura quando al cancello vede Mordechai, che nuovamente si rifiuta di inchinarsi a lui. Si mantiene tranquillo e torna a casa dove dice ai suoi amici e a Zeresh sua moglie di tutti gli onori che gli sono stati offerti, ma dice che non può goderseli finché ” Mordechai l’ebreo” è seduto al cancello. Zeresh e gli amici offrono consigli: dovrebbe costruire immediatamente una forca, poi al mattino ottenere il permesso dal re di impiccarvi Mordechai, e dopo sarà in grado di godere della sua buona fortuna e dello status elevato.

 

Ma quella notte: un altro colpo di scena! Il re non riesce a dormire, chiede il libro dei documenti da leggere e trova che Mordechai non è mai stato ripagato per le sue informazioni sul complotto contro la vita del re. Haman, arriva presto per ottenere il permesso per l’impiccagione di Mordechai, ed è invitato a offrire suggerimenti su “che cosa deve essere fatto per l’uomo che il re si diletta ad onorare” e Haman, così certo del suo favore nella corte, si chiede: “chi il re sarebbe deliziato di onorare oltre me stesso?”, e non presenta alcun contendente. Pensando che il re voglia onorarlo, suggerisce che un tale uomo dovrebbe essere vestito da altri nobili principi con abiti regali completi di corona, sistemato a cavallo e portato in giro per la città con la proclamazione “Questo è stato fatto per un uomo che il re desidera onorare”.

 

Il re è soddisfatto del suggerimento e dice ad Haman di applicarlo a Mordechai. In seguito Mordechai torna alla porta del re e l’umiliato Haman torna a casa. Gli amici e la moglie di Haman gli dicono che se Mordechai l’ebreo ha prevalso su di lui, allora è un segno che fallirà nella sua tentativo di distruggere tutti gli ebrei dell’impero. In quel momento, prima che possa davvero elaborare le informazioni, i servitori arrivano per portarlo al banchetto di Esther.

 

E per Haman le cose stanno peggiorando. Poichè il re ora chiede ad Esther cosa vuole, e lei risponde che vorrebbe salva la sua vita e la vita del suo popolo che è condannato a essere ucciso. Quando il re chiede chi li ha condannati, risponde in modo abbastanza schietto “un avversario e un nemico, proprio questo malvagio Haman”.

 

Haman è terrorizzato. Il re è furioso. Esther è silenziosa. Il re va nel giardino a pensare, e Haman implora per la sua vita davanti alla regina. In un momento farsesco il re ritorna dal giardino del palazzo nel luogo del banchetto delle libagioni; e Haman giace caduto sul divano dove stava Esther. Quindi il re dice: “Costringerà addirittura la regina dinnanzi a me in questa casa?”

 

Cosa è successo mentre il re era fuori? Esther ha progettato la situazione come un tableau prima del suo ritorno? Haman si è spostato ed è caduto su di lei? Il testo non ce lo dice, ma ora sappiamo che Esther, compiacente e bella, è stata anche strategica e riflessiva nell’ottenere la sua richiesta soddisfatta. Lei a questo punto non è una ragazza inconsapevole, ma una donna matura che è stata regina per qualche tempo …

 

Haman viene portato fuori e impiccato sulla forca costruita per Mordechai, un bel colpo di scena alla storia. La sua casa è data a Esther, che racconta anche al re della suo rapporto di parentela con Mordechai. Mordechai è promosso e riceve l’anello con sigillo del re che era stato originariamente dato ad Haman. E curiosamente è Esther che poi colloca Mordechai nella casa di Haman. Nessun dubbio su chi ora in quel rapporto sia il capo.

 

Esther poi lavora per invertire il decreto contro gli ebrei progettato da Haman. Ella piange davanti al re e gli chiede di scrivere nuove lettere in contraddizione con gli ordini originali di distruggere gli ebrei. Ma egli non può perchè le lettere del re, firmate con il suo sigillo, sono immutabili. Invece suggerisce che siccome Esther è ora responsabile della casa di Haman, lei e Mordechai possono inviare altre lettere, firmate anche con il sigillo del re, per informare che “il re aveva concesso agli ebrei in ogni città di radunarsi e difendere la loro vita, per distruggere e uccidere e far morire tutte le forze del popolo e della provincia che avessero ad assalire gli ebrei, i loro figli e le loro donne, e prendere il bottino. “Dovevano fare questo in un giorno, il tredicesimo giorno di Adar.

 

Questo fu visto come un grande giorno per gli ebrei e molte persone nell’impero si convertirono all’ebraismo. Così, quando arrivò la data del pogrom, tutti gli ufficiali del re erano dalla parte degli ebrei e sembra che ci fossero relativamente pochi nemici da uccidere in tutto l’impero: settantacinquemila in totale in quell’immensa distesa di territorio, tranne che nella stessa Shushan. Lì cinquecento uomini e dieci figli di Haman furono uccisi il tredici di Adar e altri trecento il quattordici di Adar, ma non venne preso alcun bottino.

 

Il libro si conclude quindi con una spiegazione della festa di Purim, da serbare attraverso le generazioni e ci dice che “la regina Esther, la figlia di Abihail, e Mordechai l’ebreo, scrissero tutti gli atti di potere, per confermare questa secondo lettera di Purim.” e che “il comandamento di Esther confermava queste questioni di Purim; ed è stato scritto nel libro.”

 

Il potere sembra essere saldamente nelle mani di Ester, ma il libro termina con un addendum: “Perchè Mordechai l’ebreo era secondo al re Assuero, e grande tra gli ebrei, e accettato dalla moltitudine dei suoi simili; cercando il bene del suo popolo e parlando di pace a tutti i suoi discendenti”.

 

Allora, cosa facciamo noi, come donne moderne, della storia di Ester e della festa di Purim che il libro tenta di spiegare?

 

Vediamo che una ragazza orfana vulnerabile finisce col diventare una donna potente. Essendo stata obbediente e passiva nelle mani degli uomini intorno a lei, si rivela in seguito come una donna con una mente strategica acuta, che conclude la storia come donna di grande potere e capacità di comandare, l’intestataria della proprietà di Haman, e la scrivente delle lettere nel nome del re.

 

In questo lei costituisce un contraltare letterario a Vashti, la donna che ha iniziato la storia con grande potere ma la cui scelta di rifiutare i desideri del marito in un affronto pubblico l’aveva resa un caso estremo di impotenza ed emarginazione.

 

Ma Esther non aveva usato i suoi istinti tattici e non si era mossa per difendere il suo popolo fino a ché non le era stato ricordato che persino vivere nel palazzo non l’avrebbe protetta dal condividere il destino decretato per il suo popolo. Solo la consapevolezza che anche lei è vulnerabile la fa agire. In questo possiamo vedere il modello delle donne ovunque maltrattate, la cui mancanza di fiducia fa perdere loro la capacità di agire e le fa subire con dolorosa passività fino al momento in cui finalmente si rendono conto della mancanza di scelta, agire o morire.

 

È generalmente accettato che il libro di Esther sia un libro tardo, probabilmente scritto nel IV secolo a.E.V. e sembra essere una controversia scritta per gli ebrei della diaspora per ricordare loro che la vita sarà sempre dura, ci saranno sempre persone che li odieranno nelle terre in cui vivono, eppure a differenza della moderna retorica, il libro sembra aggiungere a questa informazione che ci sono dei modi per affrontare questa situazione: il contatto con il governo, l’integrazione nella società, camminare sulla linea sottile tra l’accettazione dei costumi del paese e l’assumere posizioni di principio per mantenere l’identità ebraica.

 

Sono sempre colpita dalla battuta del servizio dell’ havdalà: “gli ebrei avevano luce, gioia, gioia e onore, così possiamo averlo anche noi” che è un riferimento al libro di Esther. È collocato liturgicamente in uno dei momenti più spaventosi della settimana, quando Shabbat sta uscendo e dobbiamo affrontare di nuovo il mondo, con tutta la sua incertezza. “L’anima aggiuntiva” se ne va fino alla settimana seguente, e ne siamo deprivati ​​e sminuiti. E ci consoliamo con le parole che arrivano dalla fine del libro, dopo tutti i combattimenti e le paure che gli ebrei dell’impero hanno affrontato. Sostanzialmente ripetiamo ogni settimana che vivere in Diaspora è insicuro, eppure possiamo farlo. Inoltre, possiamo aumentare la fiducia in noi stessi e nelle nostre capacità proprio come Esther.

 

Scritto per la rivista Bet Debora                                                      traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Vashti: a heroine not just for Purim #nastywoman

The story of Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther. We are introduced to her as she makes a feast for the women in the royal household, paralleling the feast made by the king for the men. There is no description of her feast, unlike the detailed account given of the King’s event where the extravagance of the decorations, the furniture, the utensils and the food and wine are described in all their excessive bling.

After seven days of feasting and drinking, the King decides to show off to the assembled hordes and bring his beautiful wife to his event, and the text does indeed tell us that she was “tovat mar’eh” – good to look at. He sends the seven eunuchs (sarisism) who served him to bring Vashti before him, wearing the crown royal (no other clothing is described leading the commentators to assume she was to appear naked before her husband and his friends). But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command given via his sarisim, and this angered the king greatly.

The King asked his advisors what legal consequences should follow for the Queen Vashti having refused to do the request of the King as relayed by his sarisim.

It is a strange few verses. First we are told that the King said to the wise men who understood the times – but we are not told what he said, instead there is a narrative insertion to tell us that this was his custom before those who knew law and judgment. And what does it mean that the wise men understood the times? That they were political advisors? that they were close to public opinion? Then we are given the names of the seven princes of Persia and Media – are these the wise men or are these a different group? We know that they were sitting right next to the king at the feast, that they were the first/highest in the kingdom; and we know too that they saw the king’s face.

Then comes the question – oddly phrased as a legal enquiry, and in the third person. “’What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she has not done the bidding of the King Ahasuerus by the chamberlains (sarisim)?”

And what is the position of sarisim? Is the request greater or smaller because of their involvement? Why is their presence and role as messengers repeatedly pointed out? Is Vashti offended that the message has come through them? Is she asking for a direct conversation with the King?

It is Memucan, one of the princes of Media who responds. And he exaggerates and inflames the situation in an extraordinary way. “’Vashti the !ueen has not only done wrong to the King, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples that are in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the Queen will become known to all women, [and the effect will be] to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes.  It will be said: The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the Queen to be brought in before him, but she did not come. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the Queen say the like to all the King’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.”

Suddenly the Queen’s refusal to attend her husband’s banquet in order for her beauty to be appreciated by his friends is escalated into an insult to all the peoples in the 127 provinces ruled over by the King. Suddenly she is a role model to every woman who will now defy their husbands – or at the least find them contemptible.

It makes you wonder about Memucan, about his own sense of self, his arrogance and his male privilege which seems to mask a very thin skin and a deep fear of women finding him laughable.  If twitter had been around he would surely have tweeted “Vashti is a nasty woman. Disobedient and harmful. Arrogant! Bad!  #nastywoman”

He has a solution to the threat that Vashti’s behaviour might cause if other women heard of it and wanted to emulate it:

“If it please the King, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the King give her royal estate to another that is better than she.”

She is to be banished from ever coming to the King again. She is to be stripped of her title and her possessions. She is to be treated as a bad woman – there will be others who are ‘tovah mimena’ – better than her.

And so Vashti disappears from the story. And just to rub in the reason for her treatment we are told that letters were sent in every language of the empire to remind the people “that every man should bear rule in his own house”

Vashti is a pawn in a game about explicitly retaining and building up male power and privilege. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be callously punished and that punishment held up as an example to anyone else who might think about challenging in the future.

To that extent, she is a foreshadow of the struggle of the Jews in this self-same Empire. She chooses not to kowtow to the servant/sarisim/chamberlain just as Mordechai chooses not to kowtow to that servant of the King – Haman. But unlike him she has no other channel of communication – what does the book of Esther learn from this? That the Jews are going to need a number of routes of communication if they are to survive the experience of living under a petulant dictator with enormous powers at his disposal. They are going to need to build many different and diverse relationships.

The midrashic tradition treats Vashti with great unkindness – seeing the need to denigrate her in order to build up the passive and obedient Esther. Both women become pawns in the game of male power and privilege, and they are set up against each other in a literary fiction in order to heighten the reader’s understanding of which is the right way to respond.

So poor Vashti, whose name means ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’ in Persian becomes a cautionary tale in the hands of the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud. They decide there is a connection in her name with the Hebrew verb “shoteh” – drinking, and suggest she was alcoholic and thus her disobedience was done in her cups.

They decide that when the king specifies she must come wearing her crown, that she is supposed to wear nothing else – her immodesty is legendary.  But then the Midrash suggests that she refuses to do so not because she is appalled at the request, but because she has a defect – a skin rash, a tail, leprosy – and the men will find her ugly.

There is a Midrash that she is of much grander ancestry than her husband – she is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazar, while Ahasuerus began life as the servant of her father. The problem – that she never lets him forget that she had a more powerful and higher status ancestry, she was a nagging and bitter wife, the sort of wife who would try to emasculate her husband with every opportunity. Of course she deserved her punishment, the arrogant woman.

And while she was busy trying to oppose her husband, the Midrash posits that she humiliated the other women, in particular those who were powerless, the Jewish maids whom she made work on Shabbat, whom she made work without their clothes – all this because she was called on the seventh day of the feast, and the punishment had to fit the crime, so this extraordinary crime was deduced.

Poor poor Vashti. She is indeed a cautionary tale. Beware of men in power who are scared of mature and confident women.

The story that she could not come and dance naked because she had a defect has an extra layer – that the Angel Gabriel came and fixed upon her not a tail, but a penis. Vashti is the ultimate unfeminine woman, the woman who challenges men on their own terms, the woman who behaves like a man.

You get the feeling that the storytellers who needed to diminish Vashti in this way had their own problems. They feared women who were in control of their lives, who were not dependant and therefore not in a supplicatory position in their relationships.

And you hope that the writers of this aggadic hate-fest are safely in the past. That men no longer fear women routinely, that we can see the stories for what they are – the projections of people who inadequately prepared to relate to others on an equal basis.

But of course we read this story on a yearly basis for a reason. We see that irrational fear of others never leaves the discourse entirely, that be it a woman who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of her husband or a Jew who refuses to bow to the unreasonable demands of a political force, or a human being who refuses to bow to an ideology of hatred, the battle continues.

Vashti is the bellwether, the indicator that something is deeply wrong in the system that is meant to be delivering good governance. Right now we see a President signing acts against religious groups or a Prime Minister choosing to use vulnerable groups as bargaining chips in their negotiations. Right now we see children and families fleeing from war and terrorism being refused sanctuary in a country which could easily afford to help them if it chose to do so.  Right now we are seeing bellwethers warning us that fascism is on the rise in Europe, that the learning and structures that were set up after the second world war to prevent such horror happening again are being forgotten, being overridden, being despised.  What will happen to our bellwethers if we don’t pay attention to them? Vashti disappears from the Esther narrative in a scant twelve verses. How quickly the world can change and progress and goodness erode into nationalism and hatred, into asserting power over the vulnerable, into anger that burns so fiercely that everything is consumed.

Vashti comes to tell us something important. A feminist icon she may be, but more importantly she brings a reminder that when we act out of fear of the other, out of fear of losing our privilege, a whole world can disintegrate and many people suffer.

Shabbat Zachor: Amalek, a metaphor for cruelty, victimisation of the weak and vulnerable, arrogance

On the Shabbat before Purim we have a special extra scroll reading, and the Shabbat is named not for the weekly torah reading, but for this reading – Zachor et asher assa lecha Amalek, baderech b’tzeitchem mimitzrayim. – Remember what Amalek did to you, on the journey, as you were leaving Egypt. This week is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering.

amalek soferet

On the Shabbat before Purim we read a few verses from Deuteronomy: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget” and this injunction fleshes out an earlier account in the book of Exodus where the Amalakites had come to fight with Israel, and Joshua had gone into battle, only winning when Moses’ hand were physically held up high by Hur and Aaron. At that time God told Moses to inscribe the story in a document and read it aloud to Joshua, that God would utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens, and the story ends with Moses saying “God will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages”

Who exactly is Amalek? Why is God at war for all times with Amalek and what can we understand from this story? What do we take from a command to us to effectively destroy an entire people – if this truly is the command we are given.

The Amalakites don’t seem to exist outside of biblical texts which give us very little context for them. They appear in several places in the bible right up to the book of Chronicles at the end of the book, and of course in the book of Esther Haman is said to be an Amalakite, a descendent through the Agagite tribe – hence the connection to Purim, but I think that a quasi historical understanding of the Amalakites is not especially helpful for us to understand the commandment to remember them so as to blot out their name.

Amalek seems to be not so much a people as a metaphor for cruelty, victimisation of the weak and vulnerable, arrogance. The original story tells of the group of people (Amalakites) who attack the weakest most vulnerable Israelites leaving Egypt – the ones who were at the back of the procession of ex slaves and others – and seems to speak of this attack as being entirely opportunist and without motive. Amalek hurts for the sheer pleasure of abusing power, aimlessly destroys the other for no reason or benefit. So the word becomes a synonym for everything we wish not to be, everything that religion strives to change – Amalek is the one who sees no humanity in the other, who isn’t connected as part of a shared community with the rest of the world, who rides roughshod and uncaringly over the needs and emotions of other people who are simply commodities or objects rather than reflections of the divine.

Amalek becomes the state into which we might all occasionally slide – the state of compassion fatigue, or the drive to make sure we are ok at the expense maybe of others, the closing of borders against the clamouring needy who wish to share the benefit of our world, the fundamentalist who cannot allow anyone to have a different way of seeing the world. Amalek is the one who chooses not to see a connection between us and the other, a connection which the religious person may call God; the non-religious will use other words to describe

The Amalek who is with us in every generation may not only be the traditional view of the oppressor who comes to destroy the Jewish people, it may be the inner workings of each human soul which might have the tendency to forget the humanity of others in pursuit of gratification of our own needs.

Shabbat Zachor is named after the extra torah reading about Amalek, with its imperative to remember Amalek so as to blot out Amalek, reminding us that in the coming week we will commemorate the story of Esther and read the Megillah for Purim. But as we cheer and boo, as we celebrate the gory end of those who tried to murder us, as we relieve ourselves of some of the stress of living a minority existence amongst people who resist and sometimes despise our particular difference, let’s spare a thought for the Amalek inside all of us, the characteristics of selfishness or conceit, of narrow mindedness or wilful ignorance of other’s pain. Our world contains violence and famine, slavery, hatred, refugees searching for safety, huge discrepancy between rich and poor, warfare and oppression. If that isn’t the presence of Amalek, to be thought about so that we try to change and work hard to remove it, then I don’t know what is.

Purim: blurring distinctions so that all are valued the same

We will soon be celebrating Purim, a minor, post biblical, and probably Babylonian festival which has been absorbed into Judaism. The book of Esther tells of the evil Haman who is determined to kill the Jews, of Mordechai the Jew who finds favour with the King for having foiled an assassination plot, and of Esther herself, dependant relative of Mordechai, who is married to the King after he has banished the first Queen Vashti, for insufficient respect.  It is a strange festival in so many ways. Probably a fictional retelling of an older myth, it deals with anything but fiction – the recurrent problem of anti-Semitism. Unusually the book does not ever invoke the name or presence of God, and for the first and only time in our texts or our traditions, it takes pleasure in taking revenge on the ones who wanted to destroy the Jews.

Purim is a sort of inverted, upside down and inside out kind of festival. Beginning with the evil Haman wishing for all the Jews to be killed, it ends with the death of Haman and all who seek to do his work. Many of our customs are deliberately subverted – we wear fancy dress costumes to the service, are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the difference between the phrase “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Talmud Meg 7b). We create Purim spiels which make fun of the establishment,  make a lot of noise and create a carnival atmosphere where ‘anything goes’, celebrate the marriage of Esther the nice Jewish girl to a non-Jewish potentate with many wives…. Really, nothing is sacred when we think about Purim.

But that said, Jewish values continue to shine through in this strange festival. Purim reminds us not only of the reality of being Jewish amid a world that seems determined to misunderstand us – but it also commands us to care for those who are needy in some way.   The commandments to eat, drink and celebrate this festival are accompanied by the commandment to give tzedekah.   In the Book of Esther, we read, “the same days on which Jews enjoyed relief from their foes, and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief to joy and from mourning to festival – they were to observe them as days of feasting and merry-making, and as an occasion for sending gifts [mishloach manot] and presents to the poor [matanot l’evyonim]” (Esther 9:22).

In our giving matanot l’evyonim on Purim, we are recognizing the need for an inversion in society, a turning upside down of the inequalities we see. By engaging in social action on Purim, we hope to erase the hierarchy of the haves and the have-nots. In this strange carnival time while forgetting our usual inhibitions and turning our usual routines on their heads, we are also reminded that we have the power to transform the lives of those who are suffering, to turn their days of mourning into days of joy.

Giving to the poor on Purim is something intrinsic to the celebration – so much so that even the poor must be given enough welfare from the community in order to be able to give two gifts to the poor themselves. In effect, this law blurs the distinction between rich and poor, so that the perceived gap in wealth is erased. Rather like the Talmudic dictum that one should be so drunk as not to be able to recognise the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman, one should also not notice the distinctions in monetary worth of different people. All are valued the same for this festival, as we experience a kind of ideal world where truly all are equal.

There are all sorts of ways in which you can participate in the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim. Many charities and social projects that are dedicated to improving the lot of the poorer in society. The important thing is that in the spieling and the laughing and the reading and the booing and the whole megillah of Purim activities, that this is one we can do quietly and easily.

Esther on scroll binder

image: collage by Caroline and Naomi of Esther made for scroll binding

From Purim to Pesach – the flavour of slavery as we prepare for the scent of freedoms

By tradition the days from Purim to Pesach have a character all their own – that of mental preparation and of physical hard work. For if tradition tells us that Rosh Chodesh Adar brings with it increasing joy, we know that it also sounds the starting pistol in the race to make everything ready for Pesach.

There are those who search through every book on their shelves, for crumbs fallen as the reader fed their body as well as their mind. There are those who begin at the top of the house and ruthlessly unearth every speck of leaven from the pockets of jackets hanging in wardrobes to the linings of handbags and suitcases put away after earlier outings.

There are some who ruthlessly scrub every surface be it inside or out, regardless of whether food could possibly come into contact or not, and there are those he maniacally turn out pot and pan drawers, cutlery containers and the shelves of artefacts kept unused just in case one might want a fish kettle/ pasta maker/ mousse mould.

From Purim to Pesach the traditionally minded Jewish householder experiences a little of the flavour of slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. The injunction for this story of redemption from slavery to become our own personal story is taken quite literally as servitude to the ideal of a sparkling clean leaven free home means sore back muscles, peeling fingernails and a pervasive smell of bleach on the fingers of the zealous leaven hunter.

There is, I know, a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when the work is done, the house a no-go zone for non pesachdik condiments, the shopping done, the Seder table set and the ritual foods ready along with the feast that follows. But alongside the satisfaction is the niggling sense that we need to remember that a clean house and communally enjoyed meal is not the purpose of the exercise. It is only the route towards considering the meaning of freedom.

We are to think ourselves beyond the physical and emotional labour necessary to prepare for it, in order to experience the meaning of the Seder in all its rich complexity. Having a nice meal with extended family, all work done for the moment, is not the point, however enjoyable it may be. We are having Pesach and the Seder meal in order to remember. The event is to memorialise through reliving and retelling a story that must belong to us. It is to remember our past and the formative narrative of our redemption by God. It is to make our memory something that does not simply narrate or contain the past, but something that causes us to be active in the present.

What are we doing when we memorialise, when we ‘remember’ the story of our people as if it is our own experience? We are ‘remembering’ in the sense of putting something together,‘re-membering’. We are putting together the experiences that formed us as a people and thinking about how they are still playing out in the world we live in today – both giving us our own identity as Jews and giving us understanding of all who share the experience of oppression and lack of freedoms. And from this understanding we begin to notice that we are not the only people who have a narrative of pain, we are not the only ones who are looking to be and to stay free.

The most repeated sentence in bible is “Remember you were a slave in Egypt”. Why so? It cannot be simply to remember painful times in order to dwell on them or be grateful that they are gone. It must be because action has to emerge from our remembering. Our remembering of what it was like to be oppressed and burdened has value only if we work to remove such oppression and trouble from the world we inhabit now.

These days we often understand this command to remember our own slavery as being the nudge that should give us empathy towards those who are suffering without freedoms – that we are somehow more likely to care for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised because of our own history and experience. But there is at least one medieval source which tells us almost the opposite – that once we have escaped our own pain it is easier to deny it, to treat others badly as we were once treated in order to  keep our distance from the experience. So the injunction to remember our slavery is repeated so often in our texts precisely because we are more, rather than less likely to ignore the pain of others. There are resonances in modern psychological thought – that we repeat the dysfunction of our childhood experiences in our own families, a vicious cycle that takes mindful and conscious effort to break out from.  If this is so, how much more so does the journey from Purim to Pesach and the climax of the haggadah narrative force us to remember our own suffering in order to help others whose suffering is happening right now.

            The festival of Purim allows us to explore the dark sides of our world and of ourselves. The festival of Pesach does the same. But it gives us something extra – the knowledge that if we work together we can change our world. At the exodus from Egypt not only the Jews escaped slavery – an erev rav  (mixed multitude of people) took the opportunity to escape too.  May our Pesach every year mean that other people reach freedom alongside us, that we are moved to make this happen, that we remember our own stories of oppression and work to ensure that for every person and every people there will be a time when they too will be able to recite their own story as historical narrative rather than present reality.  

 

Zachor: Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world

“Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt; how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”
-Deuteronomy 25:17- 19

 On the Shabbat before Purim we read an extra portion from another scroll, and the Shabbat takes its name from this reading – Zachor! Remember!  Liturgically this is to remind us that Purim will be celebrated in the coming week, and a genealogical link is made in tradition between the villain of the Purim story, Haman the Agagite and the people known in bible as Amalekites.

 The Amalekites, like Haman, are understood in Jewish tradition to be those people who hate without reason or cause; Bible records them as descendants of Esau, though it is hard to understand either their location or their individuality. Both “Amalek” and “Amalekites” seem to be used to describe a people who are outside the mainstream, people who are on the fringes and who threaten the core. The words come to symbolise meaningless, purposeless evil – an opposite of all that faith in God might bring, and of course in our passage we are told that Amalek did what they did because “they did not fear God”. Because of this, they attacked the vulnerable and weakest of the Israelite society, itself a raggle taggle of ex slaves with little strength to keep going. This was not a group who threatened Amalekite society – the Israelites were attacked simply because it was unlikely they would be able to defend themselves.

 Over the years “Amalek” has come to be a symbol of the other, or the enemy. Our tradition has seen all anti-semitic activity as the manifestation of Amalek, and some have gone further – to see any person or people who challenge Judaism or Israel as descendants of Amalek. The terrible killings perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 where 29 Palestinians were murdered in Hevron and many more injured, came out of extreme and misplaced belief that they were the enemy and therefore they must be Amalek. But Amalek is much more complicated than a way we might use to designate those we think of as “Other”.

 Amalek is more profoundly found not outside ourselves, but inside us, at our own core.  The gematria for Amalek is the same as that for ‘safek’ – doubt, a way of saying that the anti-divine that Amalek represents is something within us, something that we might manifest if we allow ourselves to do so.  While the etymology of the word Amalek is uncertain, it may come from two words – Am Lakak, the people who lick up – the people who selfishly take from all around without any sense of boundary or of compassion for others. Amalek is the trait that takes, that uses up, that does not consider either the other or the context or the future – it is the greed and selfishness we are all prone to as young children, something we have to learn to rein in and control if we are to live with others and create relationships and do good in this world.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808 – 1888) and said to be the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, saw the battle between Israel and Amalek in this way. For him the war is between different sets of values – and Israel should strive to be in the category of morality and life affirming activity. In his commentary on Amalek he wrote “We are warned, remember what Amalek did to you, and see to it that we ourselves should not become an Amalek within ourselves. …not to commit deeds of wrong and violence within our personal lives…. Do not forget” this [obligation to wipe out Amalek] – in case there comes a time when you will want to be like Amalek, and like him to deny your [moral] obligation and not to know God, but will only seek opportunities…to exploit your power to harm others.”  

Amalek is not only “the enemy” or “the other” or a symbol of external evil against which we must always be on guard. Amalek is our own human inclination to take from the world, and in taking to stop others from having what they need – overriding their vulnerability simply because we can. Our world is full of such behaviours and we have a responsibility to bring them to mind in order to address them. Be it the anxieties over the fate of the vulnerable in our health and social care systems, or the abilities of large organisations to fix opaque and impossible price structures that penalise the unwary or the ignorant or the cash or time-poor; be it the fate of people at the hands of corrupt leaderships or the use of the labour of children or wage slaves to keep prices down, Amalek walks among us and within us. Before we can blot out such behaviour we must become aware and outraged. Remember what Amalek did… you shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.”