March 5, 1998
Parashat Tezaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other occasions, Judaism compels us to penetrate our façades to discover who we really are. On Purim, we don masks and costumes and pretend to be who we're not. Year-round, we seek a clear appreciation of life and a true perception of good and evil. On Purim, we are bidden to imbibe -- enough to confuse the righteous Mordechai and the evil Haman. Year-round, we are admonished to sit quietly in the synagogue and absorb the wisdom of scripture and the insight of our rabbis. On Purim, we constantly interrupt the reading of a biblical book with noisemakers, and we playfully mock our rabbis and teachers. Every convention of synagogue decorum is joyfully overturned.
For Purim is our celebration of the spirituality of laughter. And so important in our spiritual balance, the rabbis taught that when the Messiah comes, all our holidays will be abrogated except Purim. Even a world perfected needs laughter.
On Purim, we will read the Scroll of Esther. On its surface, Esther is the Bible's most unlikely book. While God's name is absent from its chapters, the heroes bear the names of pagan gods -- Mordechai/Marduk, Esther/Astarte. It opens with a Jewish girl entering the harem of a pagan king.
But there is a serious side to this book. Esther is a parable about the politics of surviving in Diaspora. Consider its four main characters:
But there is a paradoxical twist to this lesson. When Mordechai entreats Esther, whose Hebrew name is Hadassah, to intervene with the king on behalf of her people, she hesitates. Despite her protests, Mordechai reads the source of her hesitation. Listen to his pointed response: "Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king's palace. On the contrary, if you keep silence in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish" (Esther 4:13-14).
Survival in the Diaspora necessitates becoming intimate with the sources of political and cultural power. But the more of ourselves we invest in moving to the center of power, the easier it becomes to forget who we really are. This is the crisis in Esther's character: Are you Esther or are you Hadassah? Do you belong to the palace or do you belong to your people?
And now we become aware of Mordechai's true role. For, while it is Esther who saves the people from Haman's evil, it is Mordechai who saves Esther's soul from assimilation, amnesia and blindness.
That's the serious lesson of Esther. But this week, the Jews of Shushan, Westwood and Encino are saved once again. So have a hamantaschen, spin your grogger, and be happy...it's Purim.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.