Parashat Tetzaveh 5783

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Remembering and Turning Things Upside-Down: Shabbat Zakhor and Purim
A D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh, Shabbat Zakhor, and Purim
By Rabbi Rena Kieval (’06)                         

“There is a certain people, scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your realm, and their rules are different from those of any other people… It is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction…” (Esther 3: 8,9)

Every Purim, these words of Haman in Megillat Esther send chills down my spine. The words are ancient, yet they are all too familiar. We recognize the anti-Jewish tropes, the intolerance of anyone who is seen as ‘other’ or different, and the quintessential hate speech that is gaining more open expression in our time.

Leading into Purim, as we observe Shabbat Zakhor, we are called to “remember.” Remember Amalek, the ancestor of Haman, the Torah charges us. Remember those who, then and now, epitomize inhumane behavior, especially cruelty by the powerful towards the vulnerable. (Deut. 25:17, 18)

On Purim, we remember, and we confront this most deadly and disturbing evil as we read the megillah of Esther, with its classic story of anti-Jewish hate. It is a tale of terror. Yet the megillah is written as a bawdy satire, and we celebrate Purim with humor, silliness and a carnival atmosphere. This feels like cognitive dissonance – how can we share this story of ugliness and hatred in an atmosphere of silliness and fun?  That is the strange brilliance of this holiday. In our very manner of celebration, Purim reminds us that even the most tragic situations can be transformed. The Jews of Shushan are about to be destroyed, but the opposite happens: v’nahafokh hu. (Esther 9:1) The haters are vanquished, things are turned upside-down.  To mark the occasion, we turn ourselves around – we dress in costume to try on different identities, we lower our inhibitions and let go of the usual standards of decorum. We laugh at a story that should bring us to tears. Everything is topsy-turvy.

Perhaps this observance of Purim was meant to give hope – as well as comic relief – to vulnerable Jewish communities who for centuries have faced one Haman after another. Perhaps also, Purim is meant to inspire us, to show us that we too can turn things around, or upside down. We can draw that inspiration from the narrative arc of the megillah’s women’s stories, reflected in the story of Esther. Alongside the account of anti-Jewish threat, the megillah also paints a picture of the oppression of women, and tells how both of these evils are thwarted.

The Book of Esther begins with Vashti’s defiance of her husband the king, causing his advisors to fear a shake-up of the social order: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against you, but against… all the men in the provinces of King Ahasuerus!” they say. “The queen’s behavior will make all the women hold their husbands in contempt….” His advisors convince the king to issue a royal decree ordering that all women must respect their husbands, and giving every man full authority to rule in his home.  (Esther 1:16, 17; 20)

These men are portrayed as buffoons, and the account is narrated with delicious sarcasm and exaggerated humor, so we laugh. But the picture is not really funny. It portrays a society that shuts down a woman’s ability to think for herself or disagree with a man. After the Vashti incident, the oppressive social order is maintained, and women are put in their place, spending months putting on make-up and grooming themselves for the king’s beauty contest.

Enter Esther. At first, she perfectly fits the mold established for the women of Shushan. She is passive and voiceless; she speaks no lines. She is ‘taken’ from her home to the beauty contest (Esther 2:8) and then ‘taken’ to the harem in the king’s palace (2:16). Esther has no autonomy. Per Mordecai’s guidance, she conceals her true self, her Jewish identity, and her true name.

In the palace, Esther continues to do “as Mordecai instructs” and is subservient, in a culture which demands that of a woman. But as trouble is brewing, a new Esther begins to emerge. She becomes an actor in the story, eventually the lead actor. She proactively investigates what is happening outside the palace. When she learns of the plot against the Jews, she takes further action. Finally, it is she who instructs Mordechai, as she develops her strategy to rescue her people. Drawing on her courage, her smarts, and her position inside the palace, Esther becomes the force which defeats Haman and his cohorts.

As befits the theme of Purim, everything gets overturned – “v’nahafokh hu.” The Jews prevail, and Haman is destroyed on the very gallows he built for Mordecai. For women, things are also turned upside down. The story began with the shutting down of one outspoken woman, Vashti; with a royal mandate for women to be quiet and obey orders; and with a subservient Esther. It ends with Esther as a powerful leader who comes out of hiding. She has saved her people, declared her true identity, and disrupted an oppressive social order.

This story could have been told as a showdown only between men: Mordechai, Haman and the King. Instead, it not only includes a female hero, but pointedly shows the transformation of a woman’s position in her community. In the end, the megillah tells us that both Esther and Mordechai have “full authority” as they establish the customs of Purim (Esther 9:29) and they share leadership of the Jewish community. But it is Esther who gets the naming rights to the book.

The scholar Tikva Frimmer-Kensky noted that stories of women in the Bible are not necessarily meant to highlight gender issues. Rather, women in these ancient stories often exemplify what it means to be vulnerable and marginalized. Women’s stories reflect the universal experiences of any people who are not in positions of power. Thus, like the story of the Shushan Jews, the story of Esther as a woman highlights the hope that the weak can become strong, that hierarchies of power can be overturned.

This week’s observances constitute a kind of journey, from memory, to action, to hope. First, Shabbat Zakhor asks us to remember, to pay attention to, the evils of Amalek and all the Hamans of the world. But remembering is not only a thought process; “remembering” includes a call to action: “Timheh et zeikher amalek min ha-shamayim.” “You shall erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens” (Deut. 25:19). We are called to act, to strive to do away with exploitation and cruelty.

Finally, the Book of Esther notes that its story is to be “remembered” in every generation by all Jews (9:28). We are always to remember the story of Shushan. From that story, and our Purim celebration, we derive hope that the worst situations can be turned upside down, that it is possible to create “light and joy and gladness and honor.”
Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.