#Time’s Up: Purim 5778
By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
There is much to enjoy about Purim – costumes, revelry, gift baskets and a focus on social justice. But this “day of joy, light and gladness for the Jewish people” also has a dark side. Have you read the Megillah lately (A.K.A the “Scroll of Esther)? On the surface, the story is harmless enough – the triumph of light over darkness, the disenfranchised minority over a fickle authority, and the uncanny celebration of being in the right place at the right time. As an added bonus, Esther is funny. In the topsy-turvy world of Shushan (the stage of the narrative) a close reading reveals a tremendous amount of wit, slapstick, and tongue in cheek humor.
At the same time, Esther presents a challenge to the modern reader and modern Jew. What do we do with the overt message of unchecked violence to women so prominent in the narrative? To give a few alarming examples – consider the opening scene in which the King throws a raucous and lavish party – the drinking game was called “No restrictions” – “…For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes.” (1:8) – the subtext speaks for itself. When the king orders his courtiers to bring forth Queen Vashti wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials (1:11), the sages suggest that the King was actually requesting that Vashti be brought in only her crown. Vashti protested, naturally, and was subsequently banished from the kingdom. As a result of this domestic guffaw, the king’s court advised, effective immediately, that a new rule be implemented in which women would now know that “every man should wield authority in his home.” (1:22)
When you read Esther, of course it’s funny. An academic analysis highlights the parodic insight. (Consider the JPS Bible Commentary: Esther by Dr. Adele Berlin). But Jewish communities throughout the centuries didn’t need the literary analysis to produce wildly popular, light-hearted Purim“shpiels” and parodies. The text begs for a comedic presentation.
Funny, the Megillah may be, but it’s jagged edge cuts deep. Continue reading Esther and you will find a beauty pageant drawing from the kingdom’s virgins – prodded, prepped and fawned over during a lengthy palace stay. For what occasion? Only to suffer the humiliation of a one night stand with the king and a walk of shame the next morning. Check out JT Waldman’s chilling graphic novel of the Book of Esther, for more creepy detail than you could imagine: http://www.jtwaldman.com/project/megillat-esther/. The casual reader doesn’t consider whether the women in the contest participated by choice or who or what they left behind. In one frame, Waldman’s portrayal suggests a form of brutal sex trafficking.
And then there is Esther – lucky – perhaps, that this young Jewish woman was chosen to be queen. But Esther is burdened as well. She must keep her religion a secret until the right moment when this great reveal will save her people from wholesale slaughter. The reader can only imagine the humiliation she suffers and the anxiety of being a hidden Jew under a death warrant. In the denouement of the text, Esther discovers that it is no less than the hand of God (although that isn’t explicit in the text) that guides her to this unique position to change the course of Jewish history. As her uncle Mordecai cautions: “If you keep silent in this crisis, help will come from another place…Perhaps you have attained to this royal position to avert such a crisis” (4: 14). HIs words form a timeless and stunning challenge.
Yes, Esther has a happy ending, and Purim, the holiday for which it is based, has been fodder for centuries of revelry and the emergence of Spring-time amusement. But, in the era of #Me Too and #Time’s Up, Esther’s readers have an obligation to notice and challenge the violence in the text. We certainly can’t change what is written. But we can employ the disturbing passages as mirrors for the assault that continues in our day, including objectification of women’s bodies, sex-trafficking, un-equal footing at home and at work. If Vashti, Esther and the stolen harem girls of Shushan had a voice today, we know what their hashtags would be.
Purim need not be ruined. We will observe the beautiful rituals and hallmarks of the holiday. We will still pay close attention to the Megillah reading – the absurd and the frightful. But the texts that make us cringe, should push us act – not gloss-over or contextualize. Stunningly, we have the necessary call to action built into the Jewish calendar. The day preceding Purim is marked as the Fast of Esther, the only fast day named for a woman in the Jewish tradition. Esther initiated her fast as a form of spiritual preparation for the hard work that lay ahead to save her people (4:16). But her fast is a prayer as much as it is a call to action, tethering us to the spirit of responsibility.
Esther prods us to ask ourselves: “Who knows why we are here at a time like this?” Actually, it is a blessing to have the opportunity to change the system, to write new texts, to tell our stories. This is an unprecedented time when women can indeed do more than just fast for our cause. We are reminded that the time is now and #time’s up. I would bet on a good Vashti costume this year – (dress included).