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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Purim pessimism

Galilee Diary #225
March 20, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

In between preparing for the Purim festivities here at Shorashim, I have been asked to make two pre-Purim presentations by institutions in our area: a lecture on Purim and pluralism, and a workshop on Purim and multiculturalism. As I sat staring at my computer screen trying to prepare, all I could think of was that the pluralism and multiculturalism of the Purim story seem to collapse as soon as the alcohol wears off. In chapter one, we read of a joyous banquet thrown by Ahashuerus for the leaders of his 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia – a multicultural party if ever there was one. However, the atmosphere grows strained over the little issue of Vashti, and we never hear how the party ended. We find ourselves in a drama of court intrigue, vicious intolerance, and violent revenge. The pluralists are not the stars of this epic.

The Book of Esther is about Jewish life in the Diaspora, scattered among the nations, struggling to keep our identity in the multicultural identity marketplace. While the tone is comical and there are heroic figures, foolish villains, and a happy ending, overall I think this a pessimistic book. Between the laughs, the message is one of the perpetual vulnerability of the Jews in the Diaspora. Indeed, perhaps the author is laughing at the Diaspora Jews, not with them...

Mordecai sends Esther to the harem competition and instructs her to keep her identity secret – before Haman’s plot comes to light; in other words, we can’t even justify Mordecai’s plotting (for social advancement?) and Esther’s going along with behavior that in any other biblical book would be seen as appalling, by pointing to an emergency. Esther “passes” for Persian and makes it to the top (like Joseph in Egypt) by a combination of looks, luck, and skill (What skills? Don’t ask.). After she gets there, of course, the emergency comes along, but Esther is not particularly interested in risking her position or her life. It’s nice to be queen; why make waves by dragging out the little secret of her true identity? And then our Jewish fantasy comes true: Esther, who has hidden her Jewishness in order to marry out and marry very well, resists the temptation to leave her past behind her; she has a moment of truth, affirms her identity, and risks her life to save her people. Here too, her story parallels that of Joseph, whose true identity breaks through in an emotional moment: “his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear...” [Gen. 45:2]. All those who hide or leave behind their Jewish identities and “make it” – how we want to believe that when it comes to the crunch, they will remember who they are, will remember those of us who held fast!

In Ahasuerus’ multicultural empire, it seems there were 127 provinces who all got along just fine, thank you – and one people who were different, “scattered and dispersed among the other peoples and who do not obey the king’s laws...” [Esther 3:8]. Unlike the other 127, we had no land, as we had been exiled [Esther 2:6], and so were vulnerable to every Haman who came along to exploit our otherness, dependent on “court Jews” like Mordecai and Esther for our survival. And what they had to do to maintain their power (and thereby keep us safe) required them to deny their identities and compromise the very values that made us who we were.

Vulnerable as we were, we used our wits and took risks and vanquished Haman and all his supporters. “Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.” [Esther 10:3] That’s the end of the book. What happened when the king’s love for Esther soured? When a new challenger undermined Mordecai’s position? When the king died and the whole bureaucracy was replaced? There is no next chapter. But we know what happened. We’ve been living the next chapter for 2,500 years.

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