Thursday, March 17, 2011

Purim

Purim is celebrated this week.  Here is its story.

Once upon a time in a land called Shushan there lived a king called Ahasuerus and his queen Vashti.  On one of the nights of one of his seven day long parties, the king and his friends were drinking and partying way too much (the Book of Esther actually states: “Royal wine was served in abundance…and the rule for drinking was, ‘No restrictions.’”). 

The king, encouraged by his buddies, thought it would be great if Vashti was paraded before his friends wearing only her crown.   Even though Vashti was also drinking, she wisely said, “No way.  That is not only beneath a queen, it is beneath any woman.”  So our drunken king asked his advisors what to do.  They said, “Get rid of her.”  And so the king kicked his queen out of the palace.

Some time later, after waking up from his drunken stupor the king cried, “Now I have no queen.”  So again he asked his advisors what to do.  They urged him to hold a beauty pageant (upon hearing this, J.Lo immediately started crying).  Meanwhile a beautiful young Jewish woman named Esther, adopted and raised by her uncle, Mordecai, decided to enter the contest. 

Esther spent hours preparing herself for the pageant, having her hair and makeup done.  She put on her most beautiful dress and most expensive sandals.  She walked slowly before the king, making sure their eyes met as she was paraded before him.   (The irony is the Bible’s not mine.)  Lo and behold, Esther won the contest and became queen.  Her uncle advised her to conceal her Jewish identity and so she did. 

This secret remained hidden until her Jewish people were threatened by the genocidal designs of Haman.  At that point our heroine fasted and prayed beseeching her king to spare her life and the lives of her people.  The king was very taken with Esther and so he said, “What is your request?  Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  She said, “I only wish to live.  I only want that my people shall live.”  “Who means to do you and your family such harm?” the king asked.  “It is Haman!” Esther exclaimed.

Upon hearing this, the king ran out of the room in a fit of rage.  Esther remained, reclining on her royal couch.  Haman was so stricken with terror that he fell on Esther, crying and begging for his life.  At that moment, the king returned to the room and said, “Does he mean to ravish the queen in my own palace?”  The palace guards seized Haman and impaled him on the stake.  Finally the king acted without asking his advisors for counsel.

Ahasuerus wrapped his arms around Esther, professing his undying love for her and saying, “My Queen, my Queen, I love you just the way you are.  It does not matter to me if you have blond hair or grey, if you are Jewish or Persian—or even both.  Let us dance together!”  (Ok, I added that last part.  But rest assured, the remainder is by the Book.  I did add a few tidbits of commentary here and there, but the storyline with all its drunken escapades, sexual allusions and even impaling are in our Bible.)

Still the question for this Purim is about hiding our Jewish identity.  Esther conceals what I believe to be most important, her Jewish identity.  Is that ever wise?   Granted it is nearly always impossible for me.  I can’t say, “Hi, I am Rabbi Moskowitz.  I am not Jewish.” And so I am left wondering about the hinge upon which our story turns. 

Without the benefit of hindsight and history would we be so approving of Esther’s decision to conceal her Jewish identity?  When it is a matter of life and death, hiding one’s identity is clearly justified, but in what other circumstances might it be advisable or even commendable?  Have you ever felt uncomfortable sharing your Jewish identity?  I wonder in what situations hiding one’s Jewish identity is wise.

Chag Purim Samayach!

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