Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim: A Hidden Message

Before reading on, it would be helpful to have a basic grasp of the Purim story.

I read something very interesting the other day about Vashti. If you remember, she was Queen to King 
Achashverosh, ruler of Persia. After getting drunk during a big feast, the King bragged about her unparalleled beauty and was challenged to prove it, so he called her to appear naked for his guests. She refused, and was killed for it.

Some years ago, I read a post on a progressive Jewish blog which praised Vashti as a feminist who sacrificed her life for her dignity, and extolled her as an example to Jewish women. This reasoning bothered me very much, as it didn't seem consistent with the text. Then again, why would the megillah speak of her at all? It could have just started with, "and 
Achashverosh needed a wife, so he ordered all the beautiful women to appear..." Presumably, we're supposed to learn a lesson from Vashti, since she's in the story, but is feminine honor the lesson? What an odd way to promote feminism, with the death of the heroine.
So, just the other day I happened to come upon a discussion about this very issue. From Gemara, we discover a few things about Vashti that aren't in the megillah. For one, we learn she's the grand-daughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple and had a special hate for the Jews. In an indirect way, we also find out she inherited this hatred from her grandfather. You see, she knew that Jews can not perform certain types of labor on Shabbat. So it was precisely on Shabbat that she would torment Jewish children (young girls, according to Talmud, Megillah 12) by forcing them to undress - stripping them of their dignity - and perform all sorts of demeaning tasks.
When the King called for her, Vashti replied indignantly, "Is the Queen to be sent for like a common slave, a mere servant girl?" Perhaps Vashti would have acceded the King's request at any other time, but on this day, she had special reason to feel indignant, though feminine dignity was furthest from her mind. For this day, the last day of the feast, the day of her execution, was the very day on which Vashti herself had often delighted in degrading Jewish girls under threat of death - Shabbat.
Purim is a holiday of mystery and concealment. The text of the megillah hides many secrets, including the name of G-d, who is not directly mentioned at all - itself unusual for a Jewish text about faith and deliverance from evil. In the world of Achashverosh, much as in our world today, G-d, Himself, is hidden. The characters plot and scheme, make various plans, thinking themselves masters of their fate. On the surface, the story of Purim would seem to affirm the narrative that only by the labor of Jewish hands was salvation achieved. If Mordechai hadn't... and if Esther wouldn't... and if the Jewish people didn't...
Likewise, in our own time and place, we are consumed with managing our worldly affairs, with controlling the direction of our lives and writing our own destiny. As for G-d? Look here, buddy, religion is all good and well; it's relaxing and traditional, fun for the kids, but let's get real. Where is G-d? Will G-d put food on the table? Will G-d place a roof over our heads? G-d is seemingly nowhere to be found. If we want something done, we need to roll up our sleeves and get it done.

Yet, no matter how hard we work to stay in control, regardless of how diligently we delay the day on which our fates our wrenched from our hands, finally the unexpected happens. When that day comes that we finally lose control, our best laid plans count for nothing. Disaster looms. Look here, buddy, this is the real world, not a fantasy, not a fairy tale where G-d comes to right the wrongs and avert tragedy. This is the harsh, bitter world where men cut their teeth on each other's bones. And G-d is nowhere to be found. Is there no hope? We fear. Is there no justice? We tremble.

Vashti, Queen of Persia, was put to death on Shabbat, the day of her perverse delight at the suffering of others. And her executioner? None other than the lowest of the King's advisers, Memuchan, but soon to be the highest, renamed as Haman. What a plot-twist! A tormentor of Jewish children, slain on the day of their torment, by their would be mass-murderer, himself later hanged on his own gallows. The remarkable irony of it all; the 
unlikely convergence of happy coincidence - each villain earning the justice of their particular demise.

Purim is neither a fantasy nor fairy tale; It relates a world as real and brutal as ours, where G-d, too, is seemingly nowhere to be found. Like ours, it is a world where injustices multiply and disasters loom; where our best efforts are rendered useless and we are made helpless, stripped down to our fear, trembling. 
In such a world, a real world, relates the megillah, a world just like ours, still justice is done, salvation comes and evil is merely an instrument wielded for its own destruction. If even such things are possible, then what sense does it make to fear anything? As we say in the final prayer of each service, three times a day, al tirah... do not fear! The hidden message of Purim, it seems to me, is a guarantee, even in the depths of concealment, the bitterness of exile, the hopeless moments in our lives, that G-d is with us.

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