The Jewish holiday of Purim is celebrated this year on Friday, March 25. It commemorates the salvation of the Jews, who had all been domiciled under the dominion of one king during the Persian Empire. Scripture calls this monarch Ahasuerus; historians quibble over his Persian name. His vizier, Haman, convinced him to sign an edict to annihilate the Jewish People, but he was eventually persuaded by his queen to reverse that order.
The Book of Esther chronicles how the king married the Miss World of his era after he personally sponsored and judged the pageant. Her uncle, Mordecai, a great Jewish scholar and leader, advised her not to reveal her nationality. But when her people were in danger, she approached her husband on their behalf, risking his wrath at her deception. When everything was said and done, the Jews were spared, Haman was executed, Mordecai became a royal adviser and the King loved Esther more than ever. Sadly, her children assimilated into the Persian royalty and lost their native identity.
What is most startling about this saga is that it is entirely a political event. The story of the Exodus features political maneuverings and negotiations by Moses, but he was outfitted with an array of miracles as pressure tactics. Esther and Mordecai, by contrast, faced their fate equipped with neither prophetic instructions nor supernatural powers. They had to strategize within the range of political options.
Indeed, the entire Book revolves around Persian politics. It begins with the effort of the King to shore up his popularity among his subjects by initiating a series of sumptuous state dinners, first for the citizens of his faraway provinces and afterward for the inside-the-Teheran-Beltway hometown crowd. This leads to a political debate in the Talmud (Megilla 12a), where one scholar says he was a “smart King” for doing outreach first; his base would be loyal, anyway. The other argues that he was a “foolish King” because it would have been better politics to solidify his base before trying to expand his radius.
(A friend of mine jokes: if one scholar says it’s smart politics and the other says it’s foolish, isn’t one calling the other a fool? His answer: a King who does not know politics is a fool, but a scholar who does not know politics is not a fool.)
The casual reader may assume that Esther was only a beauty queen with a good heart, but the Talmudic tradition is that she was a political mastermind. They record (Megilla 15b) an intergenerational dispute between scholars analyzing why she first invited Haman to two private parties with her and the King before petitioning for relief. These opinions were offered: 1) to lure Haman into overconfidence; 2) to win him over somewhat; 3) to keep him from starting a revolution that might have succeeded; 4) to act less Jewish so her revelation would have greater shock value; 5) to keep the Jews from becoming overconfident and making a misstep; 6) to keep Haman in sight until the moment was ripe; 7) to accentuate the immediacy of the threat; 8) to have the option of entrapping Haman by claiming he’s her lover; 9) to have Haman within reach where the fickle King might turn on him; 10) to make other government ministers resentful of Haman; 11) to stoke his arrogance, priming him for a fall; 12) to get him drunk so he might miscalculate. In the end, they conclude that she had intended all these machinations.
She is also credited (Megilla 7a) with convincing the religious leadership to render it a holiday. They had thought it unduly provocative to trumpet a victory over their host nation. She countered that the story is in the history books anyway; why run away from the reality? Her reasoning prevailed and that holiday has been observed for 2400 years.
The key theme of the festival: things are not what they seem. What looks like politics is really God’s hand in history. To bring that out, it is customary to make costume parties. And the Talmud’s suggestion (Megilla 7b) for this day, to show that Fate can be trusted even when you forget to pay attention? Get drunk.
One personal note. My first published writing came in 1975, at age 16, in defense of Queen Esther. A magazine called Chai had run a piece by a feminist deriding her for trading on her beauty for political gain. My friends all pushed me to write a letter to the Editor. In my rambunctious teenage prose, I called Ahasuerus an “adipose vulgarian”; to this day, old buddies tease me with that phrase. I also called that feminist’s article “oppugnant”, an adjective that I have never thought to use again in the three decades since. Well, until judges masquerading as demigods decided to ruin this happy time by starving a helpless woman to death in a great country that thought itself free.
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