Friday, February 26, 2010

Queen Esther's Fate

When I was a boy—and before I fully seized the concept that movies were make-believe—I remember always wanting my parents to tell me what happened next. What became of the characters on the screen after the movie ended. Whether they married and had children later on. If they lived to be old people. Questions like that came to me naturally and then, later on, when I began to read books on my own I transferred those questions to novels as well. Occasionally (as anyone who eventually also got to Tom Sawyer Abroad or Tom Sawyer, Detective knows), you do get to find out. (And you get to find out what happened to Huck too, by the way.) But mostly you have to make your peace with not knowing, with accepting—however begrudgingly—that the question itself has no meaning because the characters you are asking about themselves don’t really exist outside the framework of the literary work in which they appear. I suppose adults find that a natural thought, but it didn’t come to me naturally…and I still find myself wondering occasionally what happens next after I read something I’ve found totally engaging. (I’m in the middle right now of Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by the way, which is precisely in that category. I’ll write and tell you about it when I’m done.)

Obviously, I’m been thinking a lot lately about the Megillah, the Book of Esther we will read aloud twice this weekend in the course of Purim. Presented as a historical account of events that actually took place, its author has written up that account not really as piece of historical reportage but more as though it were a novella. And, indeed, that author did an excellent job, one so skillful that it is only the rare reader who pauses to wonder how exactly he or she knew the precise words that passed between Achashveirosh and Esther in a throne room that the Megillah itself says none but a royal invitee was ever permitted to enter, or between Zeresh and Haman in the privacy of their own home. And reading the book as a novella leads me almost always to muse about the same questions that occupied me so regularly in my younger years.

The Megillah ends laconically, to say the least. After a giant ninth chapter of thirty-two information-filled verses, the final chapter in Esther consists of all of three short sentences. Mind you, they too offer all sorts of details readers will find very interesting. King Achashveirosh invents a way to raise even more money by imposing new sorts of taxes on even the furthest flung reaches of his empire, thus making himself even more wealthy than he was at the beginning of the story. Mordechai ends up not only second in command to the king himself, but also formally, possibly even permanently, installed as the head of the Jewish community. (Moreover, the enormous power vested in him, the Megillah scruples to assure us, never went to his head, never made him imperious or overbearing, never made him into a little dictator so exaggeratedly concerned with the honor due his office as to turn himself into an ironic, if wholly unaware, parody of the very Haman whose downfall triggered the events that led to his own great success.) For their part, the Megillah reports that the Jews of the realm were left safe under the protection of a wise and benevolent patron, their position in Persian society happily and unassailably secure. We are clearly supposed to imagine that all is well in Persia as our story draws to its happy ending and the audience, relieved, is released to make its way to the bar or the masquerade ball or whatever celebration is planned following the reading of the Megillah in their community.

Left unmentioned in this epilogue to the larger story, however, is Queen Esther herself, the player whose quick thinking and whose bravery were the true catalysts that led both to the people’s survival and Mordechai’s amazing success. Given that the maidens left unchosen to become queen were forever sequestered in a special harem placed under the watchful aegis of the eunuch Shaashgaz, we can suppose that no one simply walked away from the king’s bed in old Shushan and went back home. (And even if some few somehow did manage to escape the seraglio, surely a queen would least of all have had that option available to her!) And so we are left not knowing what happens next (because, of course, nothing does), but nevertheless imagining poor Esther forever in place in the palace, a prisoner in a gilded cage stuck spending the rest of her life sleeping with her drunken fool of a husband and either thinking the deliverance of his people to have been worth the price she was left forever afterwards paying or not thinking that. Did the Achashveiroshes eventually have children? Was the next king of Persia the son of a Jewish mother, thus also a Jew? Did Esther, having successfully come out of the closet, pursue her Jewishness openly once the events retold in the Megillah were well in the past? The next time the king asked her to ask for anything at all even unto half the kingdom did she ask that a mikveh be installed in the palace?

None of these questions has an answer. The story ends where it ends. Esther, unknown to historians outside the literary confines of the sole book that features her, exists as far as moderns can know of her only within the tale as told. But the question that readers are left with is one still well worth asking and it is precisely this question that I would like to leave hanging for my readers to ponder as we (or at least we in New York) prepare for a white Purim. Is the moral of the story that there is no bottom line, that anything at all is worth doing, any law worth breaking, any taboo worth ignoring, if it leads to the downfall of the enemies of the Jewish people? How that squares exactly with the obligation of fealty to the law every Jew bears as his or her part of the eternal covenant between God and Israel is a question that each of us must answer for him or herself. And surely part of the point of reading the Megillah year in and year out is to ask that very question of ourselves. But that the destiny of Israel is ultimately the responsibility of every single Jewish soul cannot seriously be debated…and the inculcation of that point is also part of why we come back over and over to this story. Indeed, this latter point is—for me personally and possibly even for the author of the Megillah—the Purim story’ ultimate lesson and its most profound point. It is the reason Jewish people continue to read this story over and over. And it is the reason that our sages declared that although the advent of the messiah will obviate the need to observe most Jewish festivals, Purim itself, although currently only a minor holiday in an overpacked festival calendar, will alone never be considered obsolete or passé, nor will its back story ever be forgotten or its lesson regarding the role every Jew must play in fulfilling the destiny of the Jewish people ever be deemed to be of mere historical interest.

These are the thoughts that are occupying me as I sit here at my writing desk dolefully watching it snow and hoping that it will stop in time for us to come together in large, satisfying numbers on Saturday night to hear the Megillah. Obviously, none of us is ever going to know what really did happen to Queen Esther after the story we read in the Megillah ends. But perhaps the simple answer is that, stuck for life sequestered in a gilded palace bearing the full weight of Jewish destiny on her slender shoulders, she grew up to be us.

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