Vayikra — 5771 — Imagining Esther

16/03/2011 at 11:56 Leave a comment

“Imagining Esther”

Parashat Vayikra

12 March 2011

Neil F. Blumofe

I love Purim.  Beyond the masks and the merriment and all of the involved raucousness, it is the most ambiguous, the most theologically inscrutable of our Festivals – thus it is the most compelling and it possesses a richness that speaks significantly to the anxiety of our world.  In our story, God is obviously absent – and things seem to happen by a hidden hand.  This concept of hiddenness, or the eclipse of God is known in Hebrew as hester panim, and as the scholar Irving Greenberg writes, in this age of profound doubt and especially after the Holocaust and knowing the depth of evil, the genocides that we are prone to perpetrate against each other, we look for divine redemption, not in the heavens, rather, we try to find it in the “triumph of the good,” even if that victory does not meet preset notions of purity and perfection.  We find success in a partial and flawed achievement.

The miracle of the survival of the Jews in Persia, past the nefarious plot of Haman fits this description.  It is well known that success on Purim seems to rest on the wiles and duplicity of Queen Esther, as she hides her true identity from King Achashverosh.  And too, a bit deeper in the Megillah, we see a parallel story of irony occurring as well – that demonstrates not only the effectiveness of her hiding her Judaism for a higher goal; for in addition, the way that sex itself is used, yes, in a way that is troublesome and too brings about rescue and relief.

The sages of the Talmud comment on the verses of the Book of Esther and their accounting of how Esther is chosen by the king and Mordechai’s complicity in these matters raises uncomfortable issues.  The redemption of the Jews comes at the expense of Esther herself – and it is in this difficult treatment out of the sheer brilliance of our sacred texts and commentary that we can highlight contemporary disparities between men and women and find ways to impart information and hopefully influence a global change in attitude and behavior.

When we live in a world where women and their advocates are empowered and encourage to resist gender-based violence and oppression will be the day when the miracle of Purim continues to teaches us out of our cheerful celebrations of this day.

First, to the Talmud.  In Shushan, the rabbis of the Talmud portray Achashverosh and his queen Vashti as models of immoral behavior.  In the beginning of the Megillah we read, gam Vashti hamalka asta mishtei nashim beit hamalchut – Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal house of King Achashverosh. The

Talmud raises the question that this feast should have been only with women – and the fact that the Megillah emphasizes that Vashti partied in the same place as her husband shows that Vashti was complicit with her husband in intending to create an atmosphere of hedonism,  a constant culture of lewdness and licentiousness.

If this coarseness is the example of the day, things can only denigrate from there.  The rabbis open the possibility that rather than winning a beauty contest as is euphemistically described, Esther, the heroine of our story, was trafficked by Mordechai to the king.

In commentary to chapter 2 of the Megillah, which describes when Esther was taken to the king in the cold month of Tevet, the Talmud imagines that Esther was brought to the king in this cold winter in order to maximize the king’s pleasure in having her warm body next to his – and further, the Megillah states: va’ye’e’hav hamelech et Ester mikol hanashim vatisa chein vachesed l’fanav mikol hab’tulot – and the king loved Esther more than all of the other women and she won more of his grace and favor than all of the other virgins. Again, scrupulous with words, the Talmud asks why the Megillah makes a distinction between women and virgins – what’s the difference?  Why does the Megillah use two words in this verse?  And the answer, according to the great sage Rav, is that Ester was used in both ways, perhaps consistent with the fantasy of men – if King Achashverosh desired a virgin, he forced Esther to pretend to be one – and if he wanted her to be a woman of experience, she too acted that part as well – either way – virgin or prostitute, over and over.

And our hero Mordechai does not escape accountability – for he was part of this arrangement as well.  In addition to trafficking Esther to the royal court, the Talmud is clear that rather than her uncle or cousin, in fact Esther was Mordechai’s wife.  Thus, Mordechai instructed Esther and Esther complied — she’hayitah omedet meichai’ko shel Achashveirosh v’tovelet v’yoshevet b’cheiko shel Mordechai – she used to rise up from the bosom of Achashverosh and immerse herself to dwell in the bosom of Mordechai.  In other words, after having forced sex with the king, she would  undergo a mikvah and then return to her husband to have relations with him, back and forth, day after day.

As the rabbis of the Talmud imagined it, this awful treatment of Esther highlights the long and complex history of abuse and exploitation of women.  Beyond the somber reality that women are responsible for 2/3rds of the work done worldwide while earning only 10% of the total income and owning only 1% of the property – beyond the fact that every year 20,000-40,000 women are newly brought to be illegally trafficked in the United States, beyond the fact that  60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school and one in four women are victims of domestic violence – babies, young girls and women, especially in the developing world, are routinely oppressed, trafficked, mutilated, or killed.

According to the columnist Nicholas Kristof  and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, in their book entitled Half the Sky, the abuse and slavery of women is the greatest moral outrage of our century, and unsettlingly similar to the eclipse of God on Purim, this phenomenon is largely hidden, invisible, relatively unreported, actively tolerated or at best, ignored.  There are 60-100 million females who are missing in our current population and in the eastern Congo, so many thousands of women presented themselves for treatment after violent gang rape that the destruction of the vagina is now considered a war injury and is recorded by doctors as a crime of combat.

On Purim, we know that we are to blur the distinctions between good and evil, between Mordechai and Haman.  We may also know that we are to find God non-obviously – rather hidden within the arc of the story.  I am suggesting too that we recognize how our culture and society, like Achashverosh and Vashti, reinforces the disregard and ill treatment of women, based on stereotypes, exploitations, and certain, even tacit, expectations.

Let us reflect on the portrayal of Esther in our story – both an empowered woman who uses her considerable skills to influence the course of history and too, a powerless victim of sex trafficking who is forced to serve the king.  Let us too, see how the image of women is manipulated in our modern world — as we dress in our costumes and celebrate with our groggers and our hamentaschen next week, let us see the more complex messages contained within a curious story.  The power of comprehending Purim is right in front of our eyes – may we be blessed with a journey of awakening, to open our eyes to the injustices all around us, both extreme and banal, and may we find the strength to work to effect even a modest change for justice and equality between men and women in the face of no sure answers — may we find a triumph of the good as we walk along a difficult path along with a hidden God, into an uncertain and certainly, imperfect future.

Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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