March 9, 2017
What if we are wrong about Purim? What if Purim is not the joyful holiday that we think it is, but a mordant exercise in self-criticism, a painful look at the mirror, a scathing self-deprecation designed to inspire shame rather than glee?
Let’s go back to the basics of the story: King Ahasuerus of Persia tries to publicly humiliate Queen Vashti. The Queen refuses and Ahasuerus sends her away. He replaces her with Esther, a Jewish woman who is the cousin of Mordechai, a Jew of some renown. Mordechai subsequently uncovers a plot to kill the king, but does not immediately receive any reward. A showdown takes place between Mordechai and the evil viceroy Haman, who demands that all subjects bow to him. Mordechai refuses and Haman convinces the king to exterminate all the Jews, because they are a people “scattered among the peoples of all the countries of your empire, whose laws differ from every other people, and they don’t obey the laws of the king” (Esther 3:8). Haman draws lots and determines that the 14th of Adar will be the day of the massacre. (Purim means “luck” or “lots”). Esther plans a convoluted plot to expose Haman in front of the king by revealing her own true identity and accuse the viceroy of disloyalty. Haman gets hanged on the same tree on which Mordechai was supposed to be executed, and the Jews go on a rampage to kill those who sought to harm them. Since then, and for some 2,500 years and counting, we party and get drunk. In the famous epigram: they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat and drink.
I have to admit that this story makes me uneasy, even sad. First of all, how are we proud to celebrate a Jewish woman conscripted to serve in the king’s harem? And as for Mordechai—he discovered that plot against the king not by any act of bravery, but by overhearing conversations while sneaking around the courts of the palace. Not a very dignified image. And then, wouldn’t it have been wiser of Mordechai to just swallow his pride and bow to Haman rather than endanger his entire people? And then there are the names: Esther sounds disturbingly similar to the Persian goddess Ishtar and Mordechai to the god Marduk. A little assimilated, aren’t we? Finally, the salvation itself is, honestly, pitiful. It all hinges on luck, on getting the king boozed up and in thrall to Esther’s sensual charms.
It’s certainly not a story that makes me proud. Think about it: on Passover, we confront the mighty Pharaoh and gain our freedom with bravery and portents; on Hanukkah, we defeat a Hellenist empire with a gutsy resistance, and on Purim… we win by trickery, seduction, and dumb luck. Jews seem to be at the mercy of the whims of a frivolous king and an evil viceroy. Frankly, if you read it like that, it sounds like a story written by anti-Semites.
So why was the Purim story it included in the Biblical canon? Why do we feel “joy” on Purim? Relief, maybe—but joy?
Could it be that Purim was put in the Bible as a negative benchmark? Could it be that the Megillah is trying to make a point through reductio ad absurdum?
Purim is a story in which everything seems to be random. Vashti happens to fall out of favor; Esther happens to win a beauty contest; Mordechai overhears a conversation and uncovers a plot against the king; the king happens to have insomnia….
Purim is a cautionary tale about the precariousness of our situation, about how unpredictable life is, about how things seem to have no logic and no order. It seems to describe a world ruled by randomness. In fact, to make that point stronger, God doesn’t even receive a little cameo in the Megillah; He’s completely absent from the text. Purim, named after a game of chance, seems to contradict Einstein’s dictum that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”.
But hidden in this tale of despondency and randomness, there are clues of a hidden message, as if left behind for us to find in some textual scavenger hunt. Maybe the feeling of randomness implied by the absence of God from the story is an invitation to humans to take the initiative. The story seems to say, “Listen: you are on your own, and it’s up to you to face the scary unpredictability of the world.”
And redemption happens precisely when the people in the story accept the challenge and don’t surrender to fate. Mordechai doesn’t just happen to overhear a plot, he acts and prevents the regicide. Esther fasts and prays, but also takes matter into her own hands and acts decisively. The Jews do get a lucky break in terms of support from the king but they still must fight to defend themselves. Purim is a story of unlikely heroes who become heroes precisely by making their own luck. They don’t fight a losing battle against randomness—they adjust and fight back, with whatever tools they have.
What other holidays depicts so accurately what it is to live in the modern world? Our world seems to become more unpredictable by the minute. It would be fair to say that we failed to predict all the major events that have shaped our world, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, from the Great Recession to the 2016 election results, and from Argentina losing the world cup finals to Germany to the Cubs finally winning the World Series. In a world like this, it’s tempting to abandon oneself to listlessness and despair, to feel that we have no agency whatsoever. How can we presume any sense of order and predictability in a random world? How could we, mere mortals, claim to have any power when Messi misses a penalty kick?
And yet, in its twisted, self-deprecatory way, the story of Purim tells us not to surrender to that temptation. It tells us that we must act and take initiative; that, despite evidence to the contrary, what we do matters a lot; that luck is not an immovable block of granite but a meandering river that can be diverted or dammed and redirected. It tells us that courage can take many forms—it can sometimes roar in a battle cry, but it can also be a soft whisper that encourages us not to despair.
In one of the most moving parts of the Megillah, Mordechai cajoles Esther to take action: “Mi yodea im le’et kazot higa’at lamalchut”, “Who knows, maybe for such a time you became part of the Royal family” (4:14). Esther realizes that she has to jeopardize her place of privilege by standing up for her people; she has to use the luck—or the Providence—that brought her to that position for the benefit of others.
And this is the call that the Megillah sends to all of us, especially to funders and communal leaders. When the world seems random and unpredictable, when we feel that we have no agency or power, when we feel that the task is too big and too impossible, we need to hear the wise admonition of Mordechai and follow the brave example of Esther: it is for such times that we are called to lead, to take action, to provide relief, to help others, and to become agents of change and hope.
Purim is a reminder of our powerlessness to avoid the instability of random chance. But it’s also an invitation to act, to take initiative, sometimes to fail, and always to try again.
When we do that, the self-deprecation of the Megillah acquires a new meaning; the fragility of the Jews in the story doesn’t shame us, but inspires us to valor and bravery. When we take up that gauntlet, we feel not just the relief of having been saved from tragedy, but the deep joy of accepting the ultimate challenge of existence: that of being masters of our own destiny.