Purim Insights

by Cantor Fran Burgess

Redemption . . . Diaspora . . . Assimilation —

What do those words mean to us today?

When I think of the verb “to redeem”, I remember my mother bringing home “green stamps” with her groceries. We would lick them, put them in a book, add up their point values and redeem them for some prize in the catalogue—a real cause and effect, and such excitement to get “something we redeemed.” You save the stamps; you trade them in for something else that you want.

What does it mean for a person to “be redeemed”? Do you save something up in yourself, and then “trade it in” for something else? For some measure of grace, perhaps? The ritual of the redemption of the first born, pidyon ha ben, seems to fit into this category. This practice, which is part of traditional Jewish life, is literally an exchange of money to redeem our first-born son, from a Kohen/Priest, at age 30 days.

Metaphorically, redemption can signify a restoration of balance, a righting of a wrong. Something is out of place and then is returned to where it is supposed to be, as in redeeming a captive, which returns a person to her home.

In pondering redemption in connection to the holiday of Purim, I have questions. Some of the answers are obvious, some need teasing out, and some cannot be answered readily or even at all.

What do you think of when you hear, “Purim”? Costumes, skits, festivals, carnivals, drunkenness…

I think of all those things too. For me, Purim was always a chance to see others, including clergy, relaxed, reveling, and acting totally out of character. Children were everywhere, in costume and face paint, enjoying the craziness of the Purim plays, loving the fact that they are encouraged to make noise and be rowdy.

However, what if I said the words “redemption, Diaspora or assimilation,” would these words have associations with Purim for you? There are ideas about Purim that take it out of the realm of a strictly children’s celebration, and give it some deeper meaning in the context of our Jewish identity.

The story’s literary genre is farce. It is intended to be a comedy and its re-telling to popular musical themes is appropriate to the holiday. The custom of putting on Purim plays goes back to the Middle- Ages. Through the character of Esther the Queen and Mordechai her protector, a story of redemption emerges, a triumph over evil that results in the fate of the Jewish population in the story, taking a turn for the better; making something that is wrong, right again.

Many scholars agree that this story has no basis in historical fact. It is written in a comedic, farcical style common to the period of Persian and early Greek rule.

Biblical scholar Adele Berlin describes the function of Greek comedy in her commentary on Esther:

Comedy was the licensed clown of Athenian Democracy; in its proper place and time, its civic duty was to release the audience from restraints and inhibitions… The proper function of comedy was not to advise but to be outrageous….

So how did the Esther Megillah, this irreverent farce, make it into the Biblical canon? What purpose did it serve the Jewish people?

Its primary function is to tell the story of the origin of Purim and to provide the blueprint for its celebration and the authorization for its observance for all time. With this in mind, it is important to note that this story has a unique feature; God is never mentioned!

Here we have a story, cloaked in a pseudo-historical framework, commemorating an event meant to be celebrated as the holiday of Purim. The Book of Esther tells us to enjoy Purim to the fullest, even (according to one perspective in the Talmud) becoming so drunk as to not be able to tell the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman.’ In addition, we celebrate with a festive meal, send gifts to our friends and remember people in need.

Its second purpose seems to bring us back to those words I mentioned earlier- redemption, Diaspora and assimilation. Michael Strassfeld in his book on Jewish holidays says:

The story of Esther and Mordechai’s triumph over the foolish Persian king has been seen as a metaphor for Jewish history. The story takes place during the Exile, and the Jews are at the mercy of a whimsical local ruler. God’s outstretched hand is nowhere apparent to save them from an anti-Semitic plot. It is the combination of their own efforts and chance – that is, God working behind the scenes—that brings about redemption.

Customs have even emerged for special local Purim holidays after a Jewish community has been saved from its enemies.

Adele Berlin comes back to this metaphor of a history lesson. She sees Esther as a Diaspora story meant to inspire and strengthen ethnic Jewish pride under foreign domination. Through echoes of biblical stories already known to post-exilic Jews, Esther is validated as a model of Jewish success, a model that helps to maintain Jewish identity in the face of assimilation. Most notably, the story of Joseph has been compared to features in Esther; Mordechai, like Joseph, rises to a high position of court advisor. Berlin also brings out similarities in theme and language usage. She goes on to say:

It seems, although we cannot know for sure, that the author of Esther drew on the Joseph traditions, (if) not on a written text, and that he intended for his readers to understand that the success of Jacob’s family in Egypt would be repeated for the Jews of Persia.

The connections in Esther to Passover also return us to the theme of Exodus and redemption. Passover is not mentioned directly, but Haman’s decree was announced on the 13th day of the month of Adar, and it is 30 days before the eve of Passover. Other references exist in the text, and rabbinic teachings abound with comparisons of the escape from Egypt to the Esther story. Purim ends the Jewish cycle of festivals, which will again start with the coming Passover.

So back to some questions to ponder-

How do we define the idea of personal redemption, and what does God have to do with it?

Where are the enemies, external or internal, that keep us in the wrong place in our own lives?

How do we maintain our Jewish identity in a predominantly non-Jewish world?

These are questions with no easy answers. The lessons of a seemingly light-hearted burlesque known as the story of Esther can open a dialogue. Before the carnival, before the play, the wine or even the recitation of the scroll of Esther, we can use this text to explore some of our own personal questions about the meaning of redemption, and about how we strengthen our identities as Jews in the modern world.

Cantor Fran Burgess serves as Cantor at Temple Beth Hillel, a Reform congregation in Richmond, California, and is guest cantor for 2014-15 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. She was ordained in 2012.

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