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“The Whole Megillah”

23/02/18 08:14:45


We may call it a Megillah, we may think of it as a long, rambling, rambunctious fairy tale drama, we may joke about unchecked, unfiltered dramas being “gantseh megillahs”. The truth is that this little book, Megillat Esther, the story or scroll of Esther, is as profound as it is perceptive, as succinct as it is short. It comprises ten brief chapters and is more of a long short (but sharp) story than a book. At best it’s a novella, a brief discourse on politics and deadly human antics, an incisive interlude into the human condition and the Jewish predicament.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) contended that the Megillah is both universal and contemporary. Since he suggested this several decades ago, the messages of the Megillah seem even more relevant and pointed. The Megillah is a story of human frailty and foibles: it’s about an inept and paranoid king, a scheming Rasputin – like advisor, Haman, a smart leader and shrewd advisor and observer, Mordechai, and a brilliant strategic woman, Esther, whose charisma and charm saves her people and shapes Jewish destiny.

It’s about the fragility of life and the vulnerability of the Jewish condition; how the fate of societies is often determined by the reckless actions of a twisted person. So the fabric of Persian society is threatened by the thirst for power by the ruthless Haman. He may pretend to be the protector of the king but ultimately he seeks only to establish his own power-base (all have to bow down to him) and has aspirations to the throne itself: This is revealed in his suggestion to Achashverosh that those who most honour the monarchy should be allowed to wear the king’s crown and regalia and travel on his exclusive horse. He is a real Game of Thrones player.

Like other enemies throughout our history he is deeply threatened by the independence and influence of the Jews. Mordechai’s refusal to bow manifests this independence and Haman sees the close network of the Jews as a threat to his plans. His genocidal solution is as chilling in its precision as it is unpredictable in its fateful design (the date for the killing is chosen by ‘Purim lot’ or the spin of a dice).

Mordechai who ‘sits by the palace gates’ and is possibly part of the administration, is familiar with the machinations of power and overinflated egos. He is the first to recognise the danger facing the Jews and to appeal to Esther to intervene. He is the initiator and he inspires her to confront Haman and the king: “If you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief will come to the Jews from some other place…..And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this you attained the royal position!” (Esther 4:14). These ringing words not only inspire Esther to action; they continue to encourage us all to recognise opportunity when it comes our way, to seize the moment, to conquer the fear, to just do it! God works in a myriad of mysterious ways.

Esther may have been moved by Mordechai, but she is her own person. Her strategy to unmask Haman is her own. She does not act impulsively (as Mordechai suggests) and throw herself at the mercy of the king. She carefully and cunningly plans the downfall of Haman by planting seeds of doubt in the king’s mind. She does this by inviting just the two of them to her intimate soirees. Haman may have loved the invites, the king would have been unnerved by them. He would have begun to wonder about this Rasputin’s designs on his wife and authority. Says Soloveitchik: “This woman knows something that man does not know”. She knows how to use her deep intuitive and practical insight (the rabbis call it bina yeteira) and she also knows how to marshal the power of prayer: “Go gather all the Jews….and fast for three days night and day” (4:16).

The role of Esther in this book and in Jewish history is of a formidable, charismatic woman. Despite the intensely misogynistic society, she lives in; where a foolish king drafts a law telling women they have to be secondary to men even in their own homes; where the abuse of women is common (witness the beauty pageant as a ruse for serial rape), Esther emerges as a woman with a clarity of vision and purpose, an indomitable strength and an endearing charm and beauty. She is a woman of “chen”, a radiant strength and charm. She would have led the first #Metoo campaign and been a champion for Agunot, women unable to divorce because their husbands will not give them a Gett (Jewish divorce). Wednesday (Fast of Esther) is International Day for Agunot.

We read this book twice every year, at night and on the following morning. We read it in the evening of our despair and in the dawn of our hope. Its messages of the abuses of power, gender imbalance and the politics of hope and desperation speak to us today; it’s reflections on the human condition, antisemitism and genocide are eerily prescient and contemporaneous.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach - Rabbi Ralph

Fri, 15 November 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780