Thursday, March 8, 2012

Queen Esther: The Day After

Friday is Shushan Purim, the day after “real” Purim that commemorates the fact that the Jews of Old Shushan were so successful in defeating their would-be assailants that they required a second day to mop things up, an element of their story to which we nod slightly by giving this day a special name and, frankly, not much else. Still, it’s a nice touch. How many other holidays commemorate a victory against would-be oppressors so massive and far-reaching that it couldn’t even be accomplished on a single day? Other than Purim, I can’t think of a one. (Mind you, how many massive victories over murderous anti-Semites are in the pool to consider? Not so many!) But I had an idea while listening to the Megillah the other night that perhaps we should respond to the peculiar feature of Purim having an after-holiday by considering the aftermath of the story itself.

We don’t ever go there. We get to the end of the scroll. The band is already warming up. They’re already frying up the falafel balls. It’s a challenge to keep people in their seats long enough to sing Shoshanat Yaakov, let alone to hang around to discuss the story of Purim in any detail at all. Perhaps that’s as it should be, even: Purim is about celebrating, and the huge party we have at Shelter Rock is always a huge amount of fun. So who doesn’t want to get the party started? And yet…thinking about where the story leads is a worthy way to lend meaning and dignity to the story that is at the heart of Purim observance. (The “what happens next” motif is not, after all, foreign to our way of analyzing our ancient books. What happens after the Torah narrative itself finishes with Moses’s death is told in detail, after all, in the Book of Joshua; we have just made a communal decision not to go there, but instead to begin reading the Torah again from the beginning of the scroll, that’s all. And Ruth, the other one of the five megillot with a clear narrative story line, in fact ends precisely by following the offspring of its protagonists for generations into the future.) Only the Megillah ends with a vague summary of how things wound up, but without peering even momentarily into the future or nodding to the “what happened next” questions that modern readers seem inevitably to want to ask about the characters in their favorite books.

If anything, the Megillah draws to its end with a surfeit of good news. King Achashveirosh invents a way to raise even more money by invented new taxes to impose on even the furthest flung reaches of his empire, thus making himself even more wealthy than he was at the beginning of the story (which, as you’ll recall, was already pretty wealthy). 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 assures us, never went to his head, never made him imperious or overbearing, never made him into a self-absorbed 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 Jews of the realm are safe under the protection of a wise and benevolent patron, their position in Persian society happily and unassailably secure. All, we are obviously supposed to imagine, is well for the Jews of Persia as the story ends with a brief final chapter clearly intended to wrap things up nicely and neatly.

But left unmentioned in this epilogue to the larger story is the player whose quick thinking and whose bravery were the true catalysts that led both to the people’s survival and to Mordechai’s amazing success, Queen Esther herself. 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 just went back home. And surely a queen would least of all have had that option available to her! And so we are left 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 nincompoop of a husband and either thinking the deliverance of her people to have been worth the price she was left forever afterwards paying or not thinking that. The questions that come next almost ask themselves. Did the Achashveiroshes eventually have children? Why wouldn’t they have?) But if they did, then was the next king of Persia himself a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother? Did Esther, having successfully come out of the closet to 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, far more of a literary figure than a historical one, exists only within the tale as told. But the question that readers are left with is one still well worth asking, and it is that specific question that Shushan Purim seems invariably to bring to my mind. Is the moral of the story that there actually 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 theoretically bears as his or her part of the eternal covenant between God and Israel is a question that each must answer for him or herself. And yet, the Megillah’s deepest lesson—that the destiny of Israel is ultimately the responsibility of every single Jewish soul and that nothing (and certainly no norm of normal behavior) can be imagined to supersede that responsibility—cannot seriously be debated. Indeed, such is both the Megillah’s ultimate lesson and its most profound point. In fact, I imagine that it is that specific point that constitutes the ultimate reason Jewish people continue to read this story over and over. (Is that also the reason that the law requires that even a priest offering up sacrifices at the altar in the Temple abandon his efforts—which is to say, to abandon the formal worship of God—when the time comes to hear the Megillah read aloud? It could be!) And surely this specific lesson is the reason that the sages of classical antiquity declared that, although the advent of the messiah will eventually obviate the need to observe most Jewish festivals, Purim alone among the holidays of the Jewish year will never be considered obsolete or passé. Nor, taught the sages, 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.

Obviously, Purim is about something that once happened, about a pogrom that failed to take place and about a people rising up instead to defend itself against those who were apparently already lining up to become their willing executioners. But it is also about Esther breaking so many different rules and going against so many different norms of Jewish behavior that they can barely be counted…and still being held up to the children, and especially to the girls, of every generation of Jewish people as a heroine who risked everything to save her people, and who in the end did save her people. By omitting to tell the rest of her story, the part that follows the story told in the Megillah, tradition is inviting the reader in, inviting all of his who gather annually on Purim to hear the Megillah to step into the narrative and ask ourselves if we have it in us to risk everything for the future of the Jewish people and to contemplate all that thought entails. Had Esther lost that beauty contest, she would have disappeared into the seraglio never to be heard from again. No one would recall her name, Nor would any of us know or care that she ever lived. But because she won—surely as much a gift of Providence as an instance of success deriving from her own efforts to risk her virtue to charm her sot of a king—she is not only not forgotten, but still, all these millennia later, cherished as a role model from whose example all may learn. Perhaps we can honor Shushan Purim, then, by asking what exactly actually it is that we have learned from her example. And then, once we have found it in us to answer that question, to proceed on bravely to the truly stress-inducing part of the exercise by asking ourselves whether we have internalized that lesson ourselves…and whether we have it in us to live up to the example Queen Esther set for us so many countless centuries ago.

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