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What to Make of The Book of Esther in 2019?

Posted March 14, 2019

The Biblical Book of Esther turns out to be a surprising read.  Its rapid narrative is remarkably complex, hilarious, and accessible, especially considering it was authored 2,400 years ago.  Esther, in more ways than I wish were true, addresses timeless themes which very much apply to our world.

Esther is the source book for the holiday of Purim, and the story is set in a secular society outside of Israel, likely Persia.  There, in a land called Shushan, Jews are in the minority and living peacefully and equally among their fellow citizens (sound familiar?). The king, Ahasuerus, is portrayed as intellectually deficient and easily manipulated government leader.  And, get your groggers (or is it graggers?) ready, there’s the power-hungry government official who is Ahasuerus’ lead advisor…Haman.  Haman is a villain who gives the reader and congregant in the pew plenty of reasons to boo.  Sadly, he’s also a villain whose anti-Semitic trope is easily recognizable to our modern-day ears.

The story’s main character and courageous protagonist is a woman, Queen Esther.  Her less-famous predecessor, Queen Vashti, a heroine in her own right, was introduced to me when I was in religious school as the first feminist. As society re-examines power dynamics related to gender and relationships and we develop new insights on abusive relationships, I have begun looking at Vashti and Esther’s plight even more critically.

Unlike in many Biblical books, God does not show up to save the day.  In fact, God is not mentioned, even once, by name.  It is all up to human beings in the tale to find their way out of their predicaments.  Outrageous humor and irony are rampant throughout the text, and if the Book of Esther were ever made into a movie it would be Rated R for violence and grisly images.  We keep the gruesome parts from our kids, and rightly so.  There is much to consider when we dive into this most intriguing book.

Despite the mix of serious and comic themes in Esther, the holiday celebration of Purim has become the most celebratory, silly and joyous on the Jewish calendar.  This Wednesday, March 20, Central Synagogue will be joining Jewish communities around the world in retelling the story in our own way from 6:00 to 7:00 pm in our sanctuary.

Purim at Central will feature a spiel by our talented children and a silly service by our (less) talented clergy, dressed as Dr. Seuss characters.  There will be much merriment, including a clergy parody song of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” entitled “We’re Far from The Pharaoh Now” and all the hamantaschen you can eat.  We will even read the megillah (but not the whole megillah –see Rated R comment above!).  We hope you can join us in person as this is one sanctuary gathering we do not live stream.

A reminder that our eclectic Purim Carnivals begin beforehand and it is worth stopping by to see hundreds of our kids embracing the Purim spirit, even if you don’t have a child attending.

Whether you make it to shul on Wednesday or not, I highly recommend looking through the Book of Esther.  You’ll see it is brief, more like a pamphlet than a book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this ancient tale.  Email me or find me at services or the oneg to discuss.

Additional learnings on Esther and Purim can be found below:

• Our congregant Abby Pogrebin’s two chapters on Purim in her remarkable book “My Jewish Year” are a must read.  We have copies of her book available for you to enjoy in our Community House Lese lobby library.

• I’d also encourage you to read Ruth Balinsky Friedman’s thoughtful piece “Who is the real hero of Purim? In the #MeToo era, we should reconsider the Bible’s female icons.”

• I recommend our very own Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal’s article “The Ugly Parts of the Purim Story That We Still Need to Teach”

• I am also quite fond of Adam Gopnik’s introspective piece from a few years back in The New Yorker.

• And please seriously consider participating in the commandment to provide to the poor this Purim (found in the Book of Esther 9:22) Learn more here.

• Finally, you can find more resources on Purim on the Reform Judaism website.

Chag Purim Sameach – Wishing you a thought-provoking, joyous, and happy Purim!

Rabbi Mo Salth