Reflections: Purim and ‘Reality TV’ Parshat T’tzaveh/Zachor/Purim 5769
Jews have always been ahead of their time. We take great pride in being ‘ahead of the curve’ and pioneers in society, even if the things of which we are most proud aren’t necessarily the best. Our forefather, Abraham, was smashing idols at a time when most people couldn’t imagine that there might be another way of worshipping the gods. And Jews were sitting in the therapist’s office long before people heard of Freud. Jews were the first to embrace zero population growth while other families were having lots of kids. And we are way ahead of the societal trends when it comes to the secularization of American life – consider the fact that most synagogues are relatively empty these days at a time when more and more people seem to be attending church. So Jews appear to be ahead of their time. I guess one could call that nachas…. Maybe it’s not so surprising, then, that long before “Miss America” and “Reality TV” Jews were reading the scroll of Esther. Each year we retell the story of the original beauty pageant: How King Achashveros chose his queen from among all the beautiful virgins of Persia in the very first public competition. But this wasn’t just a contest. The story of Purim is “Reality TV” at its best, without the television set. For several months all the young virgins of Persia who were chosen to compete with one another spent their time in the palace, soaking in scented water and preening in preparation for their big date with the King. Achashveros was the most eligible bachelor in Shushan; sure, he was a drunk and a fool but he was rich and powerful so what more could one ask for? No doubt everyone in Persia watched “Shushan Idol” with fascination not only to see who the king would choose but how the girls would get along with one another in the harem, how they prepared for their big date and what would happen next. The daily chronicle must have included a report on the latest controversies in the Harem, what the odds were, as well as a report on who was eliminated from the nightly competition. One by one the girls were removed from the running until there was no one left but…our own, sweet Esther. It seems a little odd that after twenty five hundred years we’re still telling the story of the original reality program. But it just goes to show – ayn chadash tachat hashamesh, there’s nothing new under the sun. Each year as we read the story of Esther, I find myself a little more ambivalent. It’s not really a very pretty story. There’s public drunkenness, nudity, hatred, threats of genocide, and the Megillah is really misogynistic. And, then, at the end of the story the Jews turn around and kill all their opponents in Persia and forcibly convert the rest! Oh, you didn’t know that? That’s because the booklet that we use when we read the Megillah does not translate that chapter! It was considered too scandalous!
And I haven’t even mentioned the question of intermarriage or assimilation. Mordechai and Queen Esther aren’t exactly role models. After all, Jewish girls don’t enter beauty contests and Jewish men shouldn’t spend all their time skulking around outside the harem. And then there’s the question of names: Esther is named after the female goddess, Ishtar, and Mordechai is named after Marduk, one of the gods of Babylonian! The truth is, not every one loves Purim. In fact, because Purim is celebrated on two separate days in Israel – the fourteenth of Adar in modern cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, and on the fifteenth of Adar in ancient walled cities like Jerusalem and Tiberias, it’s possible to choose if, and how often, one celebrates this holiday. In Israel you have a choice: you can celebrate Purim one day, two days or not at all. If you like Purim you can spend the fourteenth of Adar in Tel Aviv and then, as the sun begins to set, you can hop in your car and dash off to Jerusalem just in time to celebrate Shushan Purim on the fifteenth. But if you’re not a big fan of Purim you can spend the fourteenth of Adar in Jerusalem and the fifteenth in Tel Aviv – that way you’ll never be in a city where Purim is taking place!! Kids, however, love Purim. Who doesn’t enjoy costumes and carnivals? When else does one get to make a racket in synagogue and misbehave without getting dirty looks from the rabbi and cantor? And, of course, for those who like an occasional L’chaim, Purim is the drinking festival par excellence. We’re told that you should drink enough booze on Purim until you don’t know the difference between “Blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman.” Now you’d have to be pretty drunk to confuse these statements. Of course, there is a bit of ‘Purim Torah’ in this statement. It seems that the numerical value of the letters in Baruch Mordechai, “Blessed be Mordechai” and Arur Haman, “Cursed be Haman” are almost the same. So some scholars take this to mean you can only get tipsy enough so you can’t do the complicated gematriah to figure this out… and frankly that’s not so drunk. But let’s get back to ‘reality’ for a few moments. Sure, Purim can be lots of fun, but it’s also dead serious. This holiday is about genocide. It is the first book about anti-Semitism since it is the first book in the bible to mention the word “Jews.” It reminds us how easily demagogues and bigots can dominate society and bamboozle our leaders. It forces us to see how fickle governments can be – even sympathetic governments. And Purim is about how we Jews are all alone in the universe, that if God is present in the world then His face is hidden from us. The name Esther among other things is said to come from Nistar, hidden. This holiday forces us to confront God’s hidden face in the universe. It is interesting to note the contrast between Passover and Purim. On Passover we tell the story of the Exodus at the Seder from the vantage point of God; we never mention Moses. In fact his name doesn’t appear in the Haggadah. And on Purim we read the Megillah, the only book of the Bible in which God’s name does not appear even once!! On Passover we celebrate the God’s redemptive power to the exclusion of human initiative and on Purim we speak about the fact that we must redeem ourselves because God is hidden from our sight. In other words it is completely up to us to save ourselves.
We’re left to wonder which type of world we live in? Do we live in a world of Purim or do we live in a world of Passover? Is God absent from the world as Mordechai tells Esther, “Perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” Or is God very much present – we have nothing to worry about because God will always be there to redeem us?? It is up to us, however, to be God’s partners in bringing this redemption about? So Purim is reality TV without “High Definition.” It is a reminder of the harsh and frightening world we live in; it is testimony of just how hateful people can be; it’s a symbol of the strange turn of events that we sometimes experience in life; and it reminds us of our ability to change the course of our own destiny. It acknowledges that chance is as much a part of life as the choices we make. In the end we’re left with a question, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” That, for me, is what this book is all about. It is a powerful example of how one person can change the course of events in the world even when God is silent. There is chance but there is opportunity. God has a place in both of them. I’d like to end this morning with one other holiday connection to Purim: Yom Kippur. No two holidays could be more different and yet there is a connection between them. Both involve chance. On Purim, Haman draws lots to decide on the day he will kill Mordechai and his people. And on Yom Kippur the high priest draws lots to decide which goat will be a sin offering and which will be sent to Azazel to carry away the people’s sins. The Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippurim, which might be read Yom Kee Purim – a day like Purim. It too reminds us that there is an element of chance in all of our lives. That is the dark reality of Purim. We’re all subject to chance. But we have a choice what we do with our fate – how will we respond to it. Purim, then, reminds us to trust God, but not to wait for Him to take care of us. Have a wonderful Purim – and have a l’chaim on me!
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