Rabbi Nanus's Shabbat Message - March 3, 2023

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Rabbi Nanus's Shabbat Message - March 3, 2023

I have a confession to make. Until recently, I was never a big fan of Queen Esther. For me, she always paled in comparison to a lot of other Biblical heroines I admire.

Miriam, who even as a little girl, risked her life to follow and perhaps save her baby brother, Moses and made sure that Pharaoh’s daughter chose their mother to care for him.  Later, she shared the leadership of the ancient Israelites with her brothers, Moses and Aaron. 

Machlah, Tirtza, Hoglah, Milcah and Noa, the five daughters of Zelophachad who confronted Moses and the entire Israelite patriarchal system to demand the right to inherit land, and won their case.

Deborah, who was a judge and prophetess, and led the Israelites into battle alongside Barak, their chief military commander. 

Yael, who fearlessly drove a tent stake into the head of Israel’s archenemy, Sisera.

Judith, who duped the blood-thirsty Syrian-Greek General Holofernes into thinking she was a double-agent, then cut off his head with his own sword, and saved her entire town. 

As I saw it, Esther was always just “the pretty girl,” the Persian beauty who got by on her good looks. The first time she’s mentioned in the Megillah, we are told that she is “shapely and beautiful,” and no other attributes are ever mentioned. And as the Purim story unfolds, it seems that Esther’s beauty is what makes everything else possible. Was she clever? Was she brave? What did she do exactly? It seems like all she did was get dressed up, looked stunningly gorgeous, invited the King and Haman to a couple of drinking parties, and when both men were really sloshed, revealed that she was Jewish and Haman wanted to kill her. In shock, Haman collapsed on top of her which inflamed the King even further and as we know, Haman was hanged on his own gallows.

I know that every little Jewish girl wants to be Queen Esther, but the fact of the matter is that some Biblical scholars are not sure that she even existed! 

According to numerous sources, Purim may have actually originated as part of the Babylonian New Year Festival in the 6th Century BCE, when the Judeans were captives and living in Babylon. On that day, the gods were believed to determine the fate of men by lot, and the Babylonian word for 'lot' was puru

In addition, the festival was characterized by a ritual pantomime that portrayed the conquest of Babylonian gods over those of its neighbors. The festivities consisted of a ten-day carnival, during which the people drank, feasted, staged processions, and had sex with people other than their spouses. The king, during this festival, was stripped of his insignia and humiliated, to remind him that he ruled by the grace of Ishtar, the Great Goddess.

To the consternation of the Jewish priests and leaders, many Babylonian Jews adopted this popular celebration along with many other pagan customs. There is a theory that eventually the priests came up with a solution: they gave the Jews a two-day holiday in the place of a ten-day carnival; they gave them the human Queen Esther instead of Ishtar, her uncle Mordechai instead of the Babylonian god Marduk. They commanded the people to drink themselves silly, but not pour libations to foreign gods. 

So, is Esther really a just stand-in for Ishtar? That would explain why she had to be so beautiful. And is Purim just a revision of the Babylonian New Year? 

Well, actually, no. The holiday may have started out that way but over the centuries, I have come to understand that our sages and mystics and great teachers imbued not just Purim, but Esther herself with holiness and symbolism and hidden messages of hope and redemption. 

Whoever wrote the Book of Esther was actually depicting a reality of Jewish life that has never really changed in 2500 years, and offering a framework of survival and resilience, both spiritual and physical.

The reality is that though we have often thrived and prospered in cultures and countries all over the world, we Jews are outsiders and have been the victims of hatred, violence and genocide. In every generation, there has been a Haman somewhere who has arisen and tried to destroy us. We never know where. We never know when. Life for Jews is a lottery – an existence filled with Purim.

When Haman declares his intention to kill the Jews of Persia, people are alarmed and scared, but they are not surprised. In fact, as soon as Esther becomes Queen, Mordecai sits at the palace gates every day, trying to learn and discern what will happen next in order to be prepared. 

If Purim reminds us of our precarious place in the world, Esther embodies the hidden quality that we all possess. In fact, our sages connect her name to the Hebrew word “hester,” which means hidden and unseen. Esther is the hidden Jew in the palace and also the hidden resilience that resides within us. Like Esther, we may not know how much courage and strength we possess until we are called upon to find it within ourselves. 

Interestingly, the Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned a single time. Is this another example of something hidden? Though Esther and all the Jews fast for three days, perhaps in hope of divine intervention, it is human and not divine action that saves the day. 

Esther teaches us that God will not intervene and save us, but instead remain hidden and work through us in our daily lives. And since we are created in God’s image, we are partners with God in controlling our own fate. Any one of us, every one of us, can become the instrument of God, for good and not for evil, for life and not for death.  In other words, we all have the potential to be Esther, not just physically, but also spiritually.

One of my favorite verses in our Shabbat prayer book expresses this perfectly. “Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on you.” In other words, we should look to God and the mitzvot for guidance on how to live a holy, ethical, meaningful life, and then it’s up to us to act accordingly in order to bring that holiness and goodness into the world.

Whether Esther was a real person or not is irrelevant. Her story is more well-known than all the other Biblical heroines I mentioned, and perhaps more inspirational. Not all of us can lead an army into battle or cut off the head of our enemy, but we can all connect to our Jewish values - to the Esther within us - and stand up and speak out against injustice and hatred. 

That is what makes Esther truly beautiful. That is why this Purim, I will be dressing up as Queen Esther. It turns out that she is more than just a pretty face. You go, girl!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,