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March 9, 2014

The Faces of Purim: A Journey
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

Cursed be Haman who sought to destroy me; blessed be Mordechai the Jew. Cursed be Zeresh the wife of the one who terrified me;
blessed be Esther for my sake. Cursed be all the wicked; blessed be all the righteous; and may Charvonah also be remembered for good.
Shoshanat Yaakov

Rabbah said: A person must get drunk on Purim until he does not know the difference between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman.”
Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b

On Purim, Jews all over the world will dress in costume and hear a ceremonial reading of the book of Esther accompanied by merriment and noisemaking to blot out the name of Haman. They will send presents of food to one another, give gifts to the poor, make a Purim feast, and make fun of traditions and sacred texts. This rite of spring gives us a chance to break out, to let loose, just as nature is letting loose.

The five major characters of Purim each teach us something about the holiday and the season. King Ahasuerus teaches us about the way unseen forces guide our lives. A boisterous and tyrannical king, Ahasuerus commands his wife Vashti to appear at a drunken banquet. She refuses, and the enraged king divorces her as a sign that he is not to be defied. In a similar vein, the greedy king allows a decree ordering the extermination of the Jews, because his advisor Haman claims they do not abide by the king’s laws. Yet a mysterious train of events leads the king to marry a Jewish woman, Esther, who dictates to him a change in his policy of war on the Jews. The monarch becomes Esther’s servant, and perhaps is the wiser for it. Ahasuerus shows us how events can lead us to new insight even when we resist. A further note: Ahasuerus may represent God, who is sometimes absent and sometimes present: both protector and fool.

Vashti, the first wife of King Ahasuerus, teaches us strength in the face of adversity. When her husband orders her to appear before him, she refuses, sensing an assault on her personhood. Because of her refusal she is dethroned and exiled from the king’s harem. Vashti’s actions have come to represent resistance against oppression. She teaches us to have self-esteem even when pressured by authority figures to degrade ourselves.

Mordechai teaches us about the power of connection. A Jew, Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, the king’s advisor, because a human does not deserve divine reverence. Haman decides, because of this, to issue a decree allowing Persian citizens to kill all the Jews. Mordechai mourns over this, and goes to his daughter, who has become queen, to ask her to plead with her husband to save the Jewish people. When Esther shows fear, Mordechai reminds her of her responsibility to her people, and also tells her she cannot escape the Jews’ fate. In the end, Mordechai is given the role of advisor to the king: a powerful connection indeed. Conenction, however, cuts both ways: Mordechai is a force for order and justice, yet he also calls for the destruction of others. How do we balance the two sides of Mordechai?

Queen Esther teaches us about journeys of growth and initiation. She is a young girl when taken into the king’s harem. She is perfumed, bathed, and made beautiful, and the king picks her as his wife. On the advice of her uncle, she conceals that she is a Jew. Later, when her uncle presses her to save the Jewish people, Esther is afraid and refuses, saying she is afraid the king will kill her for coming to him unsummoned. Yet after her uncle speaks with her again, Esther grows up and rises to the occasion. She goes to the king, invites him to two dinner parties, and gracefully intervenes on the Jews’ behalf. She creates the holiday of Purim to celebrate the Jews’ salvation. She has gone from child to woman in a few short chapters.

Haman, perhaps, teaches us about the dangers of pride. Long ago, on the Babylonian new year, priests cast lots to determine what would occur in each of the twelve coming months. In the book of Esther, Haman casts lots to determine in which month he will slaughter the Jews. He imagines he can control their fate. Yet it is he who finds his downfall in the month of Adar. Haman is forced to parade his rival Mordechai through the streets on the king’s horse. Then Haman is hanged on the tree he intended for Mordechai.

On this journey, we will meet the five major characters of Purim and learn from each one of them. By speaking to all these characters, we will meet the many faces that Purim shows us, and prepare ourselves for the reading of the Megillah this holiday season.

The Journey:

Clsoe your eyes and focus on your breath until you come to a place of quiet inside yourself. Find yourself in a large chamber. There are four thrones in the four corners of this room, and one throne in the center. Esther, Mordechai, Vashti, Ahasuerus, and Haman are seated in these thrones. Imagine each figure in whichever throne seems right to you.

Visit each of these Purim characters in turn. Ask each one what he or she wants to say to you. Do not be surprised if the various characters you encounter say things you do not expect. It may not be your “favorite” character who has the most wisdom to share with you.

Notice which character you have placed in the center. You may want to ask the person why he or she is seated in the center. Is this character at the center of the story? Is this the character you should pay attention to this Purim?

Also notice if there are other Purim characters lurking around in the room. Does one of the conspirators against the king, or a eunuch, or a queen’s handmaid want to say something to you too? Look around and see what other Purim lessons are in this room.

When you finish, thank your Purim spirit guides and prepare to depart. Focus on your breath until you feel ready to open your eyes.