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Monday, March 1, 2010

A Few Random Thoughts About Purim...

While Purim is still on our minds (and before we are overwhelmed by Pesach), I would to share a few thoughts about the Book of Esther (the Megilah). Many have noted that it is funny, ironic, replete with twists and turns of plot and full of seemingly stock characters such as the foolish drunken king, his wicked advisor, the beautiful new queen, and the sagacious wiseman. All of these things are there, but there are deeper truths that the book can teach us.

It is, first of all, a book about Jewish life in exile. Most of the other books of the Bible take place in the land of Israel, which is the land of patriarchs and matriarchs, the land of Kings David and Solomon, and the home of Bais Ha-Mikdash, our holy Temple. The setting for Esther is far from the Land of Israel, in Persia, where Jews are a minority. As opposed to the Land of Israel, where God's presence is readily felt, in Susa, the Persian capital God's whereabouts are less clear, to the extent that God is not even mentioned in the Megilah.

God isn't the only one Who hides in the diaspora. To so degree, the Jews must do so as well, or at least try to blend in. How else can we understand Mordechai's instruction to Esther that she may not reveal the people to whom she belongs?

On the face of it, Persia is a state governed by law. When Achashverosh realizes that he has a problem with Vashti, he consults with the nobles of Persia and Media, a sort of advisory senate. And over and over again, the Megilah reminds us that everything is done "according to law." We want to think of law as something that will ensure a just society, but law is only as strong as the authority that enforces it. In Persia, the source of authority is Achashverosh, a self-serving immoral opportunist. Such a leader is open to a powerful Jewish courtier such as Mordechai, but he is also open to a powerful antisemite such as Haman.

These lessons from Megilat Esther continue to resound for us today. We still live in exile, including arguably, those people who live in the State of Israel. God's presence is often not apparent. Moreover, with antisemitism on the rise, many Jews will try to blend in. In our day, we rely on law, and in the places were most Jews live, the law is relatively just, but just 65 years ago, the Nazis took over Germany and essentially made genocide legal, so the law still is only as good as the authority which stands behind it. We speak about the United States as a medinas chesed, a state based on kindness. But outside the United States and certainly within it, there are those leaders who are self-serving opportunists.

Which means we must continue to be vigilant and be strong in our faith, so that those who wish to destroy us in every generation will fail, and so that we may have "light, joy, happiness and respect" as did our ancestors in Persia so many generations ago.

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