March 13, 2006
Chag Purim sameach -- a joyous festival of Purim to you! In my CPE class we take turns offering the "opening," which is sometimes prayer and sometimes a meditation or homily, drawn from our own religious traditions. I think of it both as a way of setting our collective kavvanah (intention) for the day and a way of educating one another about our respective traditions.
Last time I had the opening I led us in the birchot ha-shachar, a series of blessings from the Jewish morning liturgy, and in the asher yatzar blessing (for the body) and the elohai neshama blessing (for the soul). I'm "on" again today, and this time I'm offering a meditation -- a (roughly) thousand-word d'var on Purim, its history and celebration, and how it can speak to us as chaplains in the work that we do. I share it here, for you as well.
The Jewish festival of Purim begins tonight, a holiday of storytelling and merriment.
Let me tell you the Purim story, in case you don’t remember how it goes. Once upon a time, in the days of the reign of King Ahashverosh of Persia, the king held a great feast and ordered his wife Vashti to dance nude before his guests. She refused, and she was banished. A beauty pageant was held to choose the new queen, and a Jewish girl named Esther won the crown, though on her uncle Mordechai' advice she kept her Jewishness hidden.
Mordechai helped her foil a plot to kill the king. One night the king remembered the foiled plot, and realized he had never thanked the person who saved him. He summoned his advisor Haman, and asked how to honor a righteous man. Haman, thinking the king meant to honor him, spun a beautiful vision of riding on a royal horse in beautiful vestments. The king ordered him to make it so, for Mordechai.
Haman already hated Mordechai, because Mordechai refused to bow down to him despite his status as a royal advisor. Jews bow only to God, and this insubordination made Haman furious. So Haman convinced the king to sign a decree that all Jews would be killed -- sweetening the pot with a generous bribe to the king's treasury. He cast a die, a pur, to determine the date of the massacre.
When Mordechai learned of this plan, Esther went before the king and revealed her Jewish identity. In the end, Haman was hung on the very gallows he had constructed for Mordechai, and the king signed a new decree that on the very date marked for the Jews' destruction, the Jews would take up arms and defend themselves. And there was violence, but we were not its victims; and we lived happily ever after.
Purim is a topsy-turvy holiday, celebrated with crossdressing, ribald humor, raucous antics. Some regard Purim as a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras, which makes sense, given the costumes, the revelry and the custom (not usually taken literally!) of drinking "until one can't tell the difference between 'blessed be Mordechai' and 'cursed be Haman.'"
Then again, others regard Purim as one of the holiest days of the year, inextricably linked to the Day of Atonement. The Hebrew name of the Day of Atonement -- our holiest holiday -- is Yom Kippur, or sometimes Yom Kippurim. Literally that translates to "Day of Atonements." But my tradition is fond of aural wordplay and puns, and there’s another way of reading those letters: as Yom K'Purim, "a day like Purim." How is the Day of Atonement, when we wear white and fast and pray all day, like Purim when we wear costumes and make merry?
On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God.
Push together the two words "at one" and you get "atone." (I told you we like wordplay.) Purim reminds us how, despite our masks, we are always at one with God; Yom Kippur is a day when we atone before God. Both holidays have oneness with God at their core.
The Song of Songs and the Book of Esther are the only books in the Hebrew Scriptures in which God’s name does not appear. On the one hand, this is hardly surprising. Song of Songs is erotic love poetry. And as for the Book of Esther, "Esther" and "Mordechai" are strikingly similar to "Ishtar" and "Marduk," the names of Babylonian gods, and it is entirely possible that we borrowed this story from an earlier Persian morality tale which had nothing to do with either the God or the people of Israel.
But on the other hand, Jewish tradition persists in regarding these as some of the holiest books we have. The Song of Songs teaches us important lessons about the I-Thou interaction, and as such is permeated with God Who is present in relationship. And in the Book of Esther, God's saving presence is so manifest in the text we don’t need the name as a reminder. These books are so holy they doesn’t need God's name to sanctify them.
This, I think, can teach us something useful in our chaplaincy work. How many of us have had visits with patients who seem to want to talk only about their surgery, or their family; their grandchildren, or their history; their treatment, or their frustrations? They don't want a prayer, or a blessing. They just want an ear.
It's easy to feel a little bit let-down by visits like that. We like praying. We like offering blessings. These religious acts make us feel useful, like our training is fruitful. But just as God is subtly present in the Megillah of Esther, even though the Great Name never appears, so God is subtly present whenever we truly listen to one another, even if prayer is never spoken.
In our work here today, and every day, may we truly know the presence of God even in the times when God’s name disappears. And may our Purim be a time of joyful holiness, enriching the days and weeks to come.
And let us say, Amen.
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