Purim: A Rite of Reversal Teaching Ways to Survive

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Difficult to date, but definitely written prior to 87 B.C.E., when it was translated into Greek, Megillat Esther appears to have been a romance novel or satire of the Persian Empire period, incorporating aspects of the Babylonian mythological goddess Ishtar, also known as Astarte, and the god Marduk. Notice how strikingly close these names are to those of the Purim heroine, Esther, and her uncle, Mordechai. So nu? Why make Purim a sacred time for Jews?

Purim is what cultural anthropologists would term a rite of reversal. Such rites, during hard times, serves as a people’s valve for letting off toxic emotional steam. The story is a political satire — where else in antiquity could Jews win at every turn? Purim is wish fulfillment within comedic relief during times of oppression — the Daily Show of its times.

More after the jump.
The social order is turned topsy-turvy. Jewish women weren’t likely to become queens to the conquering kings or emperors. The bad guy is made look like a dunce and dies for his evil ways. Esther, our nice Jewish girl, is pimped by her uncle into the palace. Esther decides to play the seductress to win the day, the opposite of modesty mitzvahs for sure. And she intermarries with the king who presumably follows Zoroastrianism, the religion of the region. In the end, the king permits the Jews to do whatever necessary to defend themselves against the evil decree, including killing his troops. Riiiight.

A Surprising Hebrew Root of the Word Purim

The root of the word Purim is the Hebrew word “hafarah,” which can be translated as disruption or annulment. (Things have changed since they taught us it was “purs” — “lots”, as in casting lots in Hebrew School, eh?) Hitler outlawed Purim by name. Why? Purim isn’t just some Hebrew School activity, it is an intentionally subversive festival, where, by analogy, we mock our oppressors and inculcate the belief that the people can triumph over evil, “even a woman” can save the day. And, one wonders, at times what were we sharing besides sweets when visiting each other to deliver nosh presents known as mishloach manot?

Jewish holidays are each a mitzvah in their own right, composed of sequenced spiritual practices, many mitzvot, that, when taken seriously, thicken with meaning and memories as we mature. Dressing in costume for Purim, for example, might at first seem like a way to engage the interest of children. But it can also serve as a jumping-off point for discussing what you might hope to do if placed in the position of Queen Esther. She had to choose whether to attempt to save the lives of her people with serious risk to herself involved.

Will We Have Had Esther’s Lifesaving Chutzpah If Needed?

Purim is a time to step into Queen Esther’s shoes and discover where God is to be found in this story. That’s right, God is not a character in this megillah, never named or apparently mentioned. Our sages do cleverly find G*d in Megillat Ester by pointing to Deuteronomy 31:18. Listen to the sound of the Hebrew words as you read them aloud: Ah’noe’hi ha-stehr ahsteer, “I will hide my face on that day.” Can you hear how ahsteer sounds like Esther? So, on Purim, G*d is also wearing a mask, that of Esther. Every day, you, a stranger, your teacher, a partner, your neighbor, your enemy — each has the potential to realize that s/he is in the Esther position — able to unmask and bring a mitzvah-centered consciousness into difficult circumstances. The choice belongs to the individual; the consequences belong to all. There, in each of us, he’ester, is hidden inside the soulspark of Esther’s courage and determination to make a difference. She used every asset she had, including her gender and sexuality. It’s a good conversation to have: was how she acted actually kosher from our contemporary point of view?

Social Justice Advocacy and Purim Options

On the evening of February 23 or before Sunday on February 24 of this year, when Purim arrives, consider bringing a life-saving agenda with you and dress in Esther’s persona for the Megillah reading. Step out in front of the crowd to raise consciousness (I can see your Esther now dressed with props to promote gun control, or to raise awareness about the trafficking of women and children, for example). See if your own people will raise the scepter of their own Purim norms and embrace your courage. It’s up to us. We are the starter dough, the baking powder in the cake of creation.

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