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Numb & Joy

Reflections on Purim

Back when I was in rabbinical school, a classmate related the following. She had a student pulpit a few hours outside of Los Angeles, and during her monthly weekend around Purim time, she gave a sermon on Vashti. Vashti was the queen of Persia who refused the king's request to appear at his banquet to show off her beauty. The student rabbi's sermon on Vashti had to do with Vashti's refusal to be objectified as a mere object of men's desire. Vashti's action was seen as an early act of women's defiance against male, patriarchal culture.

The problem, my classmate related to us, was that the congregation complained. Not that they didn't like the topic; they liked it very much. But they had heard virtually the same sermon for the fifth year in a row now, from male and female student rabbis alike. "Don't they teach you people anything new up there?" one congregant complained.

We all got a good laugh from this, the wry kind of laugh of self-recognition. Vashti was trendy; Esther was out of vogue. Esther was the archetypal sellout, a woman who traded her looks and sexual favors for power, who married not from love, but at the behest of her uncle Mordecai, who himself was seen as a kind of a procurer of sexual favors.

When I studied Esther in Yeshiva, she presented an entirely different problem. In rabbinic law (not in the Bible, I would add), Jews are forbidden from having sexual relations with non-Jews. There was no real penalty involved, but it was forbidden nonetheless. How could Mordecai devise such a flagrant violation of Jewish law, and how could Esther agree?

Rabbinic tradition sees Esther as an essentially tragic figure. There are times in life where a person has to do something entirely distasteful for some greater good. The rabbinic take reminded me of stories where a woman spy has to have a sexual relationship with someone in order to get secrets for her own nation's security. Except that Esther was no professional spook. She is depicted as an attractive young woman, and she became part of the league of young women vying for the throne. Maybe this was voluntary, maybe not. The book of Esther never says this explicitly, but rabbinic interpretation has it that Mordecai advised her to seek the crown, as Mordecai sensed the impending peril for the Jews of Persia.

From this take, we see Esther as someone who has taken the fate of being born physically beautiful and wrangled it into proximity to power. The book of Esther says that the king loved her more than all the other women, but it never says that she loved the king. When the ancient rabbis ask how Esther could violate the law and have sex with the king, they say that she turned herself into "karka olam" - "natural soil" - meaning something like an "inanimate object". (Talmud Sanhedrin 74b). I think this means that she numbed herself.

In the book of Esther, she has to rise far above a woman who numbs herself when she experiences life's outrages. She has to now become one who can manage intrigues in the palace of the king. She excels. As a result of her doings, the king reverses a decree that the Jews will be annihilated on the 13th of Adar, to a day when the Jews rise up and attack their would be attackers.

After the battles, the 14th of Adar was a day of joy and merriment. Esther and Mordecai sign a law that the 14th of Adar would be kept for all time as a day of merriment and joy, down to our very times. The day was to be called "Purim" ("Lottery" in English), because Haman had used "lots" (like dice) to decide the day of destruction. That day, due to a series of strange coincidences, along with some great human sacrifice and fortitude, would be the day of his own doom.

Once the parties died down, Esther returned to the palace, numbing herself into karka olam for the rest of her life. I think of Esther on Purim, not Vashti, not Mordecai, but Esther.

I was asked, what is the meaning of the book of Esther? One answer - Esther is an archetype. Sometimes our only response to life's outrages - the "outrageous slings of fate and fortune" - is to numb ourselves, selectively numbing ourselves so that we can go on to the greater meaning and purpose in our lives. If we did not numb ourselves at times, we would come apart with anger, resentment, grief and despair.

On Purim, we try to push aside, for a moment, the inevitable pain and suffering that life delivers, and celebrate instead the wondrous and miraculous deliverances that give meaning and joy to our lives.

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