January 20, 2019

Torah Portion

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other occasions, Judaism compels us to penetrate our façades to discover who we really are. On Purim, we don masks and costumes and pretend to be who we’re not. Year-round, we seek a clear appreciation of life and a true perception of good and evil. On Purim, we are bidden to imbibe — enough to confuse the righteous Mordechai and the evil Haman. Year-round, we are admonished to sit quietly in the synagogue and absorb the wisdom of scripture and the insight of our rabbis. On Purim, we constantly interrupt the reading of a biblical book with noisemakers, and we playfully mock our rabbis and teachers. Every convention of synagogue decorum is joyfully overturned.

For Purim is our celebration of the spirituality of laughter. And so important in our spiritual balance, the rabbis taught that when the Messiah comes, all our holidays will be abrogated except Purim. Even a world perfected needs laughter.

On Purim, we will read the Scroll of Esther. On its surface, Esther is the Bible’s most unlikely book. While God’s name is absent from its chapters, the heroes bear the names of pagan gods — Mordechai/Marduk, Esther/Astarte. It opens with a Jewish girl entering the harem of a pagan king.

But there is a serious side to this book. Esther is a parable about the politics of surviving in Diaspora. Consider its four main characters:

  • King Ahashuerus represents power. Mindless, drunk and easily manipulated, power is amoral. It neither corrupts nor ennobles its bearers. It has no compunctions nor predilections. Power, teaches Esther, follows the last person to whisper into its ear.
  • Haman represents evil. Never underestimate evil’s remarkable ability to find its way to the very heart of power.
  • Mordechai, the civic Jew — respected in the gates of the city — represents our classic Diaspora survival strategy. Mordechai imagines that by proving his abiding loyalty and usefulness to the king, he can gain the influence necessary to confront and defeat the designs of evil. But he is mistaken. As long as Mordechai remains outside the palace wall and the chambers of power, he is ultimately impotent to protect his people. He may even be honored by the king, but, from his station at the gates of the city, he cannot change the king’s decree.
  • Esther can save her people because, in the Diaspora, the only way to separate evil from power, the only way to gain security, is to find our way to the very heart of power. Only from that place — from within the palace, indeed, the innermost chambers of power — can we affect the policies that determine our fate. This is the conclusion of the Book of Esther: If you choose to live in the Diaspora, your survival depends upon your willingness and ability to become intimate with power.

But there is a paradoxical twist to this lesson. When Mordechai entreats Esther, whose Hebrew name is Hadassah, to intervene with the king on behalf of her people, she hesitates. Despite her protests, Mordechai reads the source of her hesitation. Listen to his pointed response: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silence in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:13-14).

Survival in the Diaspora necessitates becoming intimate with the sources of political and cultural power. But the more of ourselves we invest in moving to the center of power, the easier it becomes to forget who we really are. This is the crisis in Esther’s character: Are you Esther or are you Hadassah? Do you belong to the palace or do you belong to your people?

And now we become aware of Mordechai’s true role. For, while it is Esther who saves the people from Haman’s evil, it is Mordechai who saves Esther’s soul from assimilation, amnesia and blindness.

That’s the serious lesson of Esther. But this week, the Jews of Shushan, Westwood and Encino are saved once again. So have a hamantaschen, spin your grogger, and be happy…it’s Purim.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.