We just celebrated Purim this weekend. I really love this particular feast for so many reasons. The story of Esther reads like a dramatic screenplay in so many ways. There’s an empire-wide abduction of virgins, eunuchs, a young queen, a powerful king, a corrupt vizier, murderous schemes, courage, acts of cowardice, thwarted genocide, and it all ends in bloody redemption. The book of Esther is one of those books that is very easy to see yourself or your own story in because there is so much to overcome. Everyone has a battle to fight somewhere. If we have a battle to fight, then we have an enemy. Esther’s enemy was Haman.
Haman was an ambitious guy who craved glorification. He was the king’s right hand man, his vizier. He was also anti-Semitic and, through cunning and deceit, convinced King Xerxes I to have all the Jews in the Persian empire slaughtered. Why? Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, refused to bow to him. This enraged Haman who undoubtedly was dealt a narcissistic injury by Mordecai’s refusal to admire him. What do narcissists do when they’re psychically injured? They get even, and that’s just what Haman did. He lied to King Xerxes about Mordecai’s actions causing him and his people to look disrespectful, even mutinous, to the king. That’s all it took. The Jews were to be wiped out.
The book of Esther is not very long. The name of G-d isn’t mentioned one time in the entirety of the text. It doesn’t take that long to read which is a good thing because the tradition on Purim is that we read the entire book out loud. Every instance that Haman’s name is read, loud noises are made with noisemakers or groggers. The girls used to make their own noisemakers when they were younger. This year, they did not. They’re older, but Milly still had a noisemaker. The girls were more than happy to boo and hiss and squawk and make all sorts of strange noises at the mention of Haman the Evil’s name. Milly surpassed them all with her noisemaker and yelling.
In keeping with the culinary traditions associated with Purim, I even successfully made gluten-free hamantashen which were all eaten in under ten minutes! I wish they only took ten minutes to make!
The wonder of incorporating one’s faith tradition into one’s home life is that traditions like these give us chances to declare and reflect upon what we really believe in our own environments at our own pace. I was a very young child the first time I read the story of Esther. I’ve heard about Esther countless times as an adult. I’ve heard rabbis and pastors alike discuss her story and character, and some of the things they’ve said about her have indeed been important and meaningful. No one has ever mentioned, however, that Esther was essentially abducted. All the young women who were abducted across the empire were taken against their will in order to please the king because the king had divorced Queen Vashti. Apparently, she didn’t feel like being paraded around like a piece of meat in front of all the intoxicated princes and important officials engaged in the big ol’ drinking festival capping off the king’s 180 day party! It was the height of debauchery, and she wasn’t up for it even if the king himself had called for her–in a drunken stupor. No, thank you. I don’t fault her one bit. It’s been suggested that King Xerxes actually wanted Queen Vashti to come display herself before all these drunk dudes in her crown–and nothing else. So, King Xerxes abducted all these young women because he was going to replace Vashti.
Esther was living her life with her cousin, Mordecai. Both her parents had died. Esther was Mordecai’s uncle’s daughter. He adopted her to care for and protect her. In this culture at this time, something like that would have been a necessity. What was their age difference in reality? They were cousins. I doubt that Mordecai was really that much older than Esther. Esther was a victim along with all the other girls who were forced to leave their homes and communities when she entered the palace. She had no choice. When she was made to live amongst the king’s harem for a year, going through the purification rituals, she wasn’t doing that by choice. It was forced upon her. When her turn came to go before the king “for the night”, we can all assume what that meant. She was forced to have sex with a man whom she did not know. When he favored her and made her queen, it wasn’t because she chose it. Her name was even changed. Esther’s real name was Hadassah. The life that we read about in Esther was forced upon her, and it began with an abduction. Haman was merely going to end her life and the lives of her family and people group out of hatred and narcissism.
When I read this story, I see so much of the human experience. I don’t think anyone will escape life without having difficult circumstances forced upon them. We don’t choose our suffering. Grace didn’t choose her schizophrenia spectrum disorder. Milly didn’t choose autism. Women don’t choose breast cancer. I didn’t choose to be trafficked when I was 18. Certain people born into difficult life circumstances like poverty or abusive environments don’t choose that. Car accidents, job losses, illnesses, trauma, mental illness, alienation, addiction and all the other various forms of suffering on the spectrum of human experience are generally not chosen. We make choices, but, for the most part, we don’t wish to be ill, addicted, abused, exploited, estranged, and in pain. These are conditions inherent to being human.
There is something empowering and even hopeful, however, about reading a story like Esther’s and being given the permission to shout, “Boo! No!” every time the antagonist’s name is mentioned. The first time I did this I felt weird. I wasn’t raised in an environment where it was permitted to say ‘no’. One didn’t yell. Genteel ladies didn’t shout. Good manners forbade such an act, and yet here I was in a situation in which I was required to make noise. I was allowed and even encouraged to yell out, “NO!” The louder the better. Haman was evil. What he did was atrocious. What he tried to accomplish was heinous. Wiping out an entire people group is evil. It is wrong. We should shout at that, and in doing that we begin to feel our sense of personal power rise up. What else is unjust in our lives? What else deserves a big, fat NO? What else deserves some noise? What else deserves our attention? What else is wiping us out? What has become our Haman?
Do you know what happened to Haman? Haman was so taken over with hubris that he built a gallows in front of his own house measuring 75 feet high with the intention of hanging Mordecai on it. It reads like a soap opera. In the end, Haman was hanged on the gallows he built along with his ten sons. Every Purim, in the middle of my reading the book of Esther, I find myself quietly asking, “What would I like to see hanging on Haman’s gallows? What needs to go in my sphere of influence? What would I like to make a spectacle of?” With every bit of noise following Haman’s name during the reading, I imagine something going up on the gallows.
- Grace’s illness. BOO!!! NO!
- Stigma around mental illness. BOO!!! NO!
- Alienation in relationships. BOO!!! NO!
- Feelings of disempowerment and loss of self-esteem in my loved ones! BOO!!! NO!
- Loneliness. BOO!!! NO!
- Lack of authentic community. BOO!!! NO!
- Loss of a proper sense of self due to difficult and intense circumstances. BOO!!! NO!!
- Unrewarding and difficult relationships that lack intimacy and a solid foundation. BOO!!! NO!!
- A sense of ontological insignificance. BOO!! NO!!
- The loss of wonder and hope. BOO!! NO!!
I want all forms of death to leave our life and the lives of my friends. We all experience death be it the loss of life, illness, relationships that don’t work out, financial problems, unfulfilled dreams, internal wounds that should have healed but won’t and continue to hinder our forward progress in life, losses of all sorts both big and small, and tiny deaths in the forms of hopes deferred, unmet expectations, and disappointments. When I stop, however, and read about my ancestors and what they accomplished I see what’s possible. Suffering is a given. I’ve said it many times. There are four guarantees in life: death, taxes, change, and suffering.
What if, however, there were other guarantees? What about love? What about kindness? What about forgiveness? What about justice? What about sacrifice? What about compassion? What about generosity? What about courage? All of these are in the book of Esther, too. We may not get the justice we imagined, for example, but, in my experience, it doesn’t mean that a wrong goes unaddressed. Sometimes it just looks different from what we imagined. Sometimes vengeance doesn’t look glamorous or spectacular at all. Sometimes justice, or even vengeance, is being able to stand strong, hold your head up, and feel empowered in that one part of your life in which someone once called you a nothing. You proved them wrong. Courage is confronting the very thing that terrifies you while you feel afraid. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling. It’s releasing someone from a debt that you know they will never be able to repay because you know that continuing to hold onto that debt is actually crushing you and preventing you from moving on. The healing of the feelings will come later.
Knowing and truly believing that we are indeed significant regardless of our gender, race, religion, or sexuality, to me, is a form of justice because we live in a culture that does not honor and promote dignity. We live in a culture that exploits the weak, old, young, vulnerable, sick, alienated, different, and poor in order to create spectacle, mock, and stratify. If it can be boiled down into a sound bite, put on a t-shirt, and sold, then all the better. Does it matter if that pithy one-liner comes at the expense of an entire group or gender? No. If it offends, hurts, and exploits, then all the better because offense feeds the masses which promotes more social media attention which promotes more sensationalistic media coverage which promotes more voyeurism which promotes more consumerism and on and on it goes. We begin to experience justice on a personal level when we extricate ourselves from this media machine, wean ourselves from thoughtless consumerism, look inward at our inner landscapes, and ask the two all-important questions:
- What do I really want?
- What do I really need?
That’s really what motivated Esther and Mordecai. Desire, need, and a strong sense of ontological significance. In the face of annihilation, they each fought in their own way with what they had to survive and flourish, and they did as did the rest of the Jews. Some of us are facing forms of annihilation in the forms of disease, intimidating diagnoses, difficult relationships, and uncertain futures. There seems to be no guarantee except that nothing is certain. That is the only known variable. The unknown.
I disagree. What Esther, Mordecai, and their people teach us is that we are worth fighting for. Even when faced with something extreme and seemingly impossible to overcome, there is always hope. We are all unquestioningly worthwhile, lovable, and valuable. Even if nothing is certain, that is. With that in mind, we can move forward knowing that it might not be easy to pursue our own welfare or the well-being of a loved one, but pursuing a life of peace with a courageous heart for your own good as well as for the good of those you love is never a wasted effort. I guarantee it.
For Mordecai the Jew was next to King Ahasuerus (King Xerxes I) and great among the Jews, and was a favorite with the multitude of his brethren, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to his whole race. Esther 10:3