Shabbat Zachor, Leviticus 6:1-8:36
One of my rabbis in seminary told this story: While serving as an Army chaplain, a soldier professed to him, “I believe every word in the Bible!”
The rabbi replied, “Really? Have you read every word?”
Nowhere is my rabbi’s Bible lesson more spot-on than with the story of Purim. Have you read every word in the Scroll of Esther? Unless you are fluent in biblical Hebrew, hearing the Megillah chanted in Hebrew so you can stomp, shout and spin your grogger with each mention of Haman’s name doesn’t count.
Neither do the sanitized, censored versions of the Megillah called Purimschpiels. I happily acknowledge that Temple Emanuel’s annual Purimschpiels are among the favorite feel-good moments of our year. Temple members star as Purim’s heroes and villains. This year’s Purimschpiel, set to the music of Billy Joel (of course, he’s Jewish), is typical of all our “G-rated” versions of the original story, made suitable for family viewing.
But the Scroll of Esther is an X-rated story, unexpurgated in the Bible. Chapter 2 describes how Esther became queen by winning a sex competition that King Ahashverosh conducted every night for 12 months. Mordecai’s role might be accurately described as procurer. Our Temple Purimschpiels typically end with a rope dangling around Haman’s shoulders. Chapter 7 of the Scroll of Esther ends with Haman dangling by his neck from the gallows. The unfunny summation of Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat,” is especially unfunny regarding Purim. After Haman tried to kill us, what ensues in the Megillah may have been the Bible’s most ghastly act of revenge perpetrated by the Jewish people. They hang Haman’s 10 sons, slay 500 of Haman’s followers in Shushan and slaughter 75,000 of Haman’s followers across Persia.
Herein is but one of many good reasons why Jewish tradition refers to the rabbis of the Talmud as Chazal, “Our sages of blessed memory.” Our sages were aghast at the bloodletting and the sexual sensationalism of the Megillah. Our sages also appreciated that the Jews of their day likely understood the Megillah’s every word. So in Tractate Megillah 7b, the great sage Rava proposed, “A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’ ”
Surely Rava intended to numb people’s senses while they heard the Megillah, to obscure and obliterate the memory of Jewish behavior that he deemed reprehensible. Moreover, the sages set the Jewish calendar so that Purim will never fall on Shabbat, underscoring the distinction between sacred and profane.
Finally, and most tellingly, altogether absent from the Scroll of Esther is any mention of God. It is a rare biblical book that is Godless. Perhaps God wanted to stay as far away from this sordid story as possible. On the other hand, God’s absence suggests that the salvation of the Jewish people is not dependent on divine intervention, but on human action. Thus according to many traditional commentators, Purim also teaches that our salvation lies in our own hands.
The downside of the Purim story is that in the absence of God, Jews behaved mercilessly, godlessly. The upside of the Purim story is that Jews took salvation into their own hands. Together, the downside and the upside form the Purim paradox.
The Purim paradox should disturb us more deeply today than it disturbed Rava — or Esther and Mordecai for that matter. The existential threat that Iran poses to Israel far exceeds the threat Haman posed to the Jews of ancient Persia. But what if Israel attacked Iran first? Add one word to such a prospect, “nuclear,” and the stakes soar beyond paradoxical to horrific.
Moreover, this modern-day Purim paradox is not confined to the Middle East. Israel is also under attack here in the United States, most recently by the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, and the anti-Israel “study guide,” titled “Zionism Unsettled,” published by the Presbyterian Church USA. You and I are enmeshed in this Purim paradox. Is anyone satisfied with the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians? We, too, are responsible to find the solution. May the ever-present God help us to help ourselves move from paradox to peace.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)