Recently, Jews all over the world celebrated Purim. My memories of Purim are a photo of my Israeli friend Orah Breitbart in Japanese costume, when I was about fourteen, and my receiving a generous gift of hamentaschen from a Jewish library patron when I worked at the Elkins Park Library in Pennsylvania in my forties. But the biblical story of Esther has always intrigued me, and I considered writing a book that blended the 483 b.C. history of Xerxes’ (Ahasarus) Persia and its Jewish immigrants with the Twentieth Century stories of Iran that once was a modern shahdom before being engulfed in dominion of Muslim ayatollahs’. Persepolis (both the idea and the touchingly narrated and illustrated story of a Persian childhood by Marjare Sartori) impressed me with the idea of women living under the threat of annhillation, and drove me back to the biblical narrative.
I have a British-American friend, daughter of a Muslim Iranian businessman, who lived in Iran until the Islamic coup that ousted the Shah and put their land eight hundred years back in time. She is totally an American citizen and evangelical pastor’s wife, with whom I share life’s tidbits and the workings of God’s grace in our pilgrim lives. A lover of history, I always have sought links between Biblical facts and current events. So, for me, the book of Esther is not disassociated from things that still happen in the world that impact and change history as well as God’s saving His people in the chiaro-scuro days of Diaspora.
The Megilla depicts God’s grace and intervention without once mentioning His holy name. Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Haggiai and Malachi all cover the 70 years captivity (as well as parts of Isaiah and Jeremiah), and the story of Esther happened in Shushan while Ezra was leading the return of Jews to rebuild the temple. We don’t know what took the lives of Hadassah’s parents, but we do know she was an orphan, raised by her cousin Mordechai, who was of Benjamite royal lineage from Judah (say, like Saul, Jonathan, and Mephiboseth long before Jair, and may have been brought to land of Medes and Persians by the Babylonian Nebucchodnezzar.
The festival which celebrates the outcome of the story has several customs — the sending of gifts to family and friends, celebration and merrymaking, wearing of costumes. This is a way of emulating God who "disguised" his presence behind the natural events described in the Purim story, and has remained concealed —yet ever-present — in Jewish history since the times of the destruction of the first Temple. Charity is a central feature of the day, when givers and recipients disguise themselves this allows greater anonymity thus preserving the dignity of the recipient. The Persian Exile alludes to hidden aspects of the miracle of Purim which was "disguised" by natural events. The story begins in with Ahasurus’ banquet in Shushan to show off the riches and glory of his kingdom that reached from India to Ethiopia. Queen Vashti (according to some Talmudic scholars, daughter of Belshazar and granddaughter of Nebocodnezar,) hosted a banquet for the noble women of the land. Some Bible teachers use the fact that she refused to display her beauty before the drunken king and his guests is a teaching on modesty, while others use the fact that she defied the king’s order as an affirmation of fifth-century feminism—I prefer to think of it in terms of the facts: she refused to obey her wine-imbibed show off husband and, and like the wife of any tyrant, consequently was deposed. It then became law: every woman shall honor her husband  and every man is lord of his own household, and had the right to speak his own language (Esther 1:20-22).
When the king’s rage was spent, a new proclamation went throughout the land: a beauty pageant was planned and all the most beautiful virgins were now candidates to the queen’s position. If anyone thinks this is the ideal way to find a husband, confound him or her—it’s an ancient pagan method of choice, with no thought for integrity. But God was working in the shadows, and there was a Jewish man of character in the palace, Mordecai, who suggested his adopted lovely daughter be candidate. After a year of intense preparation under the auspices of Hegai, the chief guard and beauty advisor, Esther was presented to the king and immediately chosen as wife and crowned as queen. Her cousin told her to keep her Jewish identity secret. Tradition has it that she ate only fruits and nuts because kosher food was unavailable in the palace (maybe like Daniel and his friends (Dn 1.5-16).
Graceful Esther was given a banquet in her honor for princes and their servants and the other virgins who had participated at her installation in the royal house. Genorosity and gifts were the order of the day, and once again, Mordecai sat at the king’s gate. While there, he discovered a plot to murder the king, and told Esther, who revealed it to the king. The incident resulted in the hanging of Bigdan and Teres, and was recorded in the historical chronicles of the Persian kingdom. Nothing more was said about it.
Meanwhile, enter the villain prime minister Haman, to whom all but Mordecai bowed down. Haman took his irritation at the personal slight to a national level, and decided to do something to end not only Mordecai but all the Jews of the land. Anti-semitism resurges over the centuries and is always never discreet, but virulent, comparable to Nazi Germany’s plans to eliminate the Jews in the 20th century. A great sum of money was promised to the king, the document was written, signed with Ahasarus’ seal, translated into every language of the kingdom and distributed by couriers throughout the country.
Mordecai heard of the edict and received documentation, and so did Esther. Jews throughout the land mourned, fasted and prayed, wearing sackcloth and ashes. Mordecai reminded Esther, “Don’t think you will escape just because you live in the palace. If you are silent, help and relief for the Jews will come from somewhere else, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows if you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13,14). Esther sent word to her protector asking that he convoke all Jews in Shusan to fast and pray for her; meanwhile, she will do the same and go to the king. “If I perish, I perish.”  After three days, she put on her royal robes and went to the inner patio in front of the king’s room. Delighted with her presence, the king stretched out his royal scepter asked her what she wanted, promising he would give up to half his kingdom if she so wished.
“No, just give me the pleasure of coming to a banquet I have prepared for you. Bring Haman with you.” It was done, and after the banquet, Haman bragged to his family how the queen had honored him inviting him to accompany the king. “But I won’t be satisfied while Mordecai is still at the king’s gate”, to which Zeres suggested, “Then prepare a scaffold to hang him!”— which he did.
Meanwhile, the King’s insomnia suggested a sure sleep-provoker—having them read to him the boring chronicles of the history of his kingdom. “What honor was given to Mordecai for uncovering the plot against my life?” he asked. “Nothing happened.” Next morning Haman was in his patio and he turned to him and asked, “What should be done to the man the king wishes to honor?” Conceited, self-involved Haman thought surely he would be the man, and counseled the king to have him clothed with kingly garb and crown, riding the king’s horse, with someone going before him and proclaiming, “Thus shall be honored the man the king wishes to honor!” “Then go do it — don’t omit a single detail — to Mordecai!” Crestfallen, the prime minister obeyed and paraded and honored his arch-enemy, then ran home to tell his family. While they were thinking of these things, the king’s emissaries can to fetch Haman to the queen’s second banquet.
This time, while they were wined and dined, the king insisted on asking what was on Esther’s mind, and she told him that she and her people were to be destroyed and killed. “Who would do such a thing?” asked the king without a clue. She begged for her life, revealing, “This man, this oppressor, this enemy is the evil Haman!”
Power was stripped from Haman and given to Mordecai; Haman’s property was given to Esther, but the laws of the Medes and Persians could not be revoked, so a new law, giving the Jews permission to defend themselves and kill their attackers was proclaimed. Purim was made a day of banqueting and joy, of sending gifts and finding respite, and giving generously to the poor.

 For such a time as this, an orphan Jewess became queen of Persia and saved her people from extermination. It was all written in a book. Mordecai became second after king Ahasarus, and great among the Jews, esteemed by the multitude of his brethren, seeking the well-being of his people, and proclaiming prosperity for all his descendants (Esther 9:32; 10:3).
Elizabeth Gomes

No comments:

Post a Comment