Rabbi David Walk
Purim is the most joyous day of the Jewish calendar. Everyone should spend at least one Purim in Israel to see the fun going on in the schools, synagogues and streets. Almost without exception people are dressed in costume and coming or going to a party. For the school children, Purim begins with the first of Adar and lasts for two weeks of games, parades and gifts. In yeshivot, the normally serious students get drunk and replace the regular reverence for their rabbis with parody and caricature. It's amazing and well worth experiencing. In America for certain sociological reasons, Chanukah has displaced Purim as the kids holiday, but that's not important to us right now. What we'd like to discover is why Purim has gone from a relatively minor festival into such a big deal. What is the enduring charm of Purim?
I'm sure that there are many possible answers to this question, but I'd like to suggest that the most reasonable approach is that Purim represents values clarification. The Purim story starts with great confusion. Although I believe that the confusion begins earlier during the feasts recorded in chapter one, we first notice it when Mordechai is introduced. This famous verse is the first of four which are recited aloud by those listening to the reading, and goes like this: There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital named Mordechai ben Yair ben Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin (Esther 2:5). For the first time in the history of our people someone is identified as a Jew. In earlier times the term yehudi (Jew) was only used for members of the tribe of Yehudah, but Mordechai was clearly identified as from the tribe of Binyamin. Here's the confusion. He's the first person to identify as a Jew, but his name is Mordechai, the name of a Persian god. It would be like a proud Jew today named Christopher. There's nothing wrong with it, but it is incongruous and a bit confusing.
The confusion continues in the following verses. Our heroine is identified with the beautiful Hebrew name Hadassah, but immediately we're told that she calls herself Esther. This is again the Persian name of a god. How Jewish were these people; how assimilated? We don't really know. But it does give us a hint into why she hides her Jewish identity, and why she is loathe to break the rules of court behavior, even when the fate of the Jewish people hangs in the balance. She, perhaps, is not all that comfortable with her Jewish identity.
Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, a truly gifted teacher of Tanach, points out that the Jews of Shushan were living in the Persian period when they had the opportunity to return to Israel. But they chose to remain in the Diaspora. He emphasizes that preference by informing us that the term I translated as 'capital' in the verse, is bira. This term only appears one other place in our Bible, and it refers to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. This (and some other references) strongly reminds us that these people rejected the prophets call for a return to Israel, aliya wasn't so popular in those days either.
To help us understand the reason for these anomalies in the way our heroes present themselves, I think that we must analyze the structure of the Megilah. Megilat Esther is undoubtedly the most orderly book in our Bible. The story is chiastic. That's a fancy way of saying that the end of the story mirrors the beginning of the story. The story begins and ends with a description of the extent of Achashveirosh's empire, and then we are informed of two celebratory parties, while the end also has two parties. Next, at the beginning we have an execution, and before the parties at the end there is an execution. I could go on, but you've got the idea. At the crossing point of the narrative in the middle of the book is a critical, dramatic change of direction in the character of the most important protagonist. When you begin reading the tale there are many candidates for chief character, but by the time we reach chapters four and five, only Esther is left standing.
Esther enters the text as a meek young woman, totally under the sway of Mordechai, her guardian, and, perhaps, uncle. Then she follows the instructions of Chatach, head of the royal harem. However, in chapter four she finds her voice. Initially she starts giving orders. She tells Chatach to instruct Mordechai to discard his sackcloth and ashes and put on regular clothes. Then she emphatically refuses to follow Mordechai's demand that she go to the king and intercede on behalf of the Jewish people. In her new assertiveness she opts for personal safety over national survival. At this juncture Mordechai realizes that the time has come for drastic action. He sends a message so chilling that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein claims that he trembles every year when it is read: Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king's house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father's household will perish (Esther 4:13-14).
From this point on in the Megilah, Esther is in charge. This new attitude has two extremely important aspects to it. I quote from Rav Lichtenstein, 'The Megilla is a story of development on two levels: one in terms of strength of character, initiative and courage, and the other in terms of moral awareness, of reassessing priorities, and the two processes go hand in hand.' Esther has decided between apathy and empathy, selfishness and selflessness. We want to emulate her courageous transformation.
Now we can explain our strange behavior on Purim. We make believe that we're foolish, immature and uncaring like the young Esther. We're somebody else, but we want to emerge like a butterfly ready to fulfill our destiny. Rav Lichtenstein defines the challenge of Purim: Let each person do as Esther did: stand before himself, stand before God, and once the situation is quite clear to him, ask himself, "Where am I, who am I, what comes first, what is vital and what is secondary?" May we find Esther's strength of character. Happy Purim!