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At nightfall on March 7 of this year, a crowd arrived wearing masks and costumes; they passed around candy and food and strong drink. They had gathered to hear an ancient story.
On February 23 of 2013, at nightfall, the crowd will gather once again to repeat this yearly tradition. It’s been happening for ages: the annual Jewish celebration of Purim. The reading of the book of Esther is the central event of this Jewish holiday, but the story-telling is augmented with costumes, festivities, eating, drinking and laughter. For a Jew celebrating Purim, you do not merely listen to the story; you participate, you re-enact it.
I imagine the scene: a costumed crowd chattering amongst themselves, laughing, eating. The story-teller takes the podium; the chatters softens, then ceases in anticipation. The storyteller adjusts the pages, clears his throat, and launches into a familiar story. The audience has heard it before, but somehow in the spirit of the moment it sounds new, different, alive:
Similar to the crowd’s reenactment, the story itself begins with a lavish celebration. The king, King Xerxes, has been showing off for 187 days displaying his wealth for the whole empire to see and admire, and at the king’s behest, the guests gorge themselves on food and wine.
On the 187th day, the script says King Xerxes is “in high spirits from the wine” (imagine that), when he remembers one more prized possession he has yet to exhibit: he summons the queen to display her beauty before the people. The king is clear that she is to wear her royal crown; whether she was to wear anything else is left to imagination. Clothed or not clothed, the Queen refuses to parade herself for a room of drunken men, and for the first time in 187 days, the king’s lurid exhibition encounters a hitch.
It is a terrible thing to end such a grand party on a sour note, and the king is furious. He flags down the experts of law and justice, the so-called “wise men who understood the times.”
“What must be done with Queen Vashti? She has not obeyed!” his speech blurs as he glowers from behind bloodshot eyes.
The lawmen recoil from the forceful stench of his breath. Finally one expert speaks up. We expect he is sober and we expect a rational defense of the compromised queen, but to our shock, the lawman is more livid than the king. “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes,” he spews with the persuasive passion of a politician.
All the peoples of all the provinces? This is news, even to the king, who is merely reacting to a personal affront and the public humiliation that ensued. King Xerxes squints in confusion, rubs his headache with a thumb and a forefinger. He wills himself to think clearly, to discern the nature of this national threat. He leans to listen closer and a servant reaches to steady his swagger.
The expert explains with patronizing patience: “This very day the Persian and Median women of nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.”
Closing his eyes, the king tries to let the danger of the situation sink in to his muddled brain. At long last, he nods his head in agreement and the official continues, “Queen Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”
This pleases the drunken king and he sends dispatches to every part of the kingdom, with decrees written in every language, commanding that every man should be ruler of his own household. Problem solved, the king relaxes, fury abated, and grabs for his goblet.
At this point, the story-teller pauses, as if the story is over. The crowd knows better, and though they’ve heard this story before, they lean in like children at a bedtime story, willing the tale to continue with their eagerness. The story-teller pauses a second longer for effect and continues . . .
After the king’s festivities and the queen’s follies have passed, Xerxes remembers his wife and his own decree that she can never ever return to him. Before he can grow lonely, an attendant offers an alluring proposal: “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king.”
What the king would do without all his advisors, he does not know. The suggestion appeals to him, and the search for young beauties begins. All across the land, women are rounded up and sent to the palace. The Plan? Each one will complete twelve months of beauty treatments in preparation to meet the king, and then they will be paraded in to him, one girl per night, to see who pleases him best. Of course, the creation of a royal harem is nothing noteworthy or out of the ordinary and would never have made history at all if it hadn’t been for the orphan girl, Hadassah. She meets all three search-criteria: Young? Check. Virgin? Check. Good-looking? Check. So for the second time in her short life, she is taken captive. She is first a Jew, who has been brought to the land as an exile, and now she is merely a pretty girl of inconsequential nationality, whisked away to the palace as a fresh concubine.
She has an older cousin who is like a father to her, since she has no parents of her own, and after she was taken from him, he paces back and forth by the harem courtyard daily, trying to catch wind of her wellbeing. “Don’t tell them you’re a Jew,” he had whispered fiercely in her ear when they had dragged her away, for Jews were not viewed favorably in the king’s lands. Taking his advice, she gives her name simply as Esther.
One year later, Esther is taken to the king in his royal residence. He likes her, likes more than any other woman, so he sets a royal crown on her head, throws a banquet, proclaims a holiday, and distributes gifts liberally. It all sounds too familiar, as if he is repeating the party where he was first dismayed, erasing the memory of his wife’s refusal with this young new girl—so captivating is she in her beauty, so hopelessly at his disposal and in no position to spurn him.
She continues, even then, to keep her nationality hidden. Perhaps she does not think her position of favor a secure one, or perhaps she is keen to keep something of herself inaccessible from the grasping hands of the self-indulging king.
The plot thickens when Haman enters the scene, and it is now that the booing of the crowd begins in earnest. They no longer sit politely as listeners; they burst into the set themselves, like a blaring musical score, drowning out the character’s voice with their lilting jeers.
Haman, the king’s highest noble, regards Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, as his mortal enemy. It starts as a personal grudge, but then Haman learns that Mordecai is a Jew of all things, and his disdain escalates. Mordecai’s behavior stokes the fires of Haman’s toxic prejudice, and Haman begins to plot destruction for the whole revolting race. Eventually, he even sets up a pole in his own backyard where he dreams of one day impaling Mordecai upon it.
But first, Haman bribes the king that he might eradicate “a certain people whose customs are different and who do not obey the king.” As we already know, the king bristles at people who disobey and we know the king does not hesitate to take advice that serves his interests. Along with Haman’s handsome buyoff, this is hardly an offer a king can refuse.
The decree for Jewish annihilation is delivered as frivolously as that, and the deal is done. The script says, “The couriers went out and the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city was bewildered.” Quite true to form, the king drinks merrily while other people make his laws for him. Unbeknownst to Xerxes, he has just sealed the fate of his new queen and her people.
Jews throughout the land begin mourning, fasting, weeping and wailing. Mordecai sends word to Esther and begs her to attempt an intervention. But the king has not summoned her for 30 days; what is she to do? She has no real audience with the king. So far, she has only faired better than Vashti by keeping quiet and doing as she is told. To ask to be heard, if it does not please the king, would mean death.
To ask to be heard could mean death: he was ruler, she was subject, and there were royal decrees to keep such lines of distinction intact. But in some of the bravest lines recorded in Scripture, Esther reports to Mordecai, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
For three days, Esther fasts and prays. On the third day, she approaches the king.
The boos and the jeers of the crowd listening to the story have ceased. They sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation. They imagine the king’s fat round face, taking her in, peering at her in curiosity, weighing how he wants to respond to this unexpected intrusion. His lips twitch into a half-smile. Is he taunting her? Welcoming her? Or sneering at her? The anxious crowd releases a collective sigh of relief when the king extends his scepter.
Esther, for her part, is bold, but sly. First, she asks for a banquet, and then another. She knows, I assume, how the king likes his food and likes his wine. She invites Haman, who likes the prestige of an exclusive banquet with the king and his woman. While the men feasted, I imagine Esther pushed the food around on her plate, heart pounding, stomach churning.
Finally, we arrive at the second banquet, the moment of truth. “Queen Esther,” the king bellows in wine-induced generosity, “What is your real petition? I will give it to you! Up to half my kingdom, I will grant it!”
Esther knows, of course, that the king agrees only when a proposal serves him. She words her request carefully, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition.” The king is not expecting something this easy. Of course he’ll grant her life; she’s his favorite.
Esther continues, “And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed.” She knows about the bribe, apparently, but she merely hints, knowing better than to accuse. “If we had been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.” “If we had been sold as slaves,” says Esther, the foreign exile, the concubine slave. This sarcasm is lost entirely on the king, but that’s not all he misses. He does not even recognize the culprit sitting beside him or the culprit in himself.
“Who is he?! Where is he?! The man who would dare to do such a thing?” the king’s fury rises, and regardless of whether he will ever see his own complicity, Esther has him right where she wants him. With the king on her side, Esther points to Haman as their vile enemy. Almost immediately the king orders Haman impaled on the pole by his house, the same one where he had planned to murder Mordecai . . .
. . . and the crowd goes wild at the irony. Cheers for Mordecai! Three cheers for Queen Esther! And clink go their glasses. They laugh and they laugh and they laugh their way to the end of the story, in which the Jewish people will be delivered. The story itself is by no means a light-hearted comedy, but neither is their laughter flippant or fluffy, the mere effect of alcohol. It is the laughter of a people who have known exile, slavery, prejudice, and now a Holocaust. It is the laughter you can only muster when you have descended to life’s dark places and come back to find life is still worth living. It is the laughter of the delivered. It is the laughter of the Psalmist: “If the Lord had not been on our side,” let Israel say, “If the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive when their anger flared against us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped! Like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Cheers for the Lord! Clink, clink, clink, clink. Cheers oh people of God! Laugh. Dance. Rejoice oh weary people. You have known the darkness and now you know the light. Your story shall overcome this world of hostility, so throw back your head and laugh! Amen.