This week's portion: korban

Purim: redemption and the true king

In Hebrew school yesterday we unrolled a small scroll across the seminar table to show our b'nai mitzvah prep kids the megillat Esther. (No, not the JT Waldman rendition, though I've just taken my beloved copy off the shelf to re-read as I do every year at this season...) We noted a few interesting things about this particular megillah -- like, for instance, the fact that the first line ends with the word המלך / ha-melech (the king) and then in the next ten or so columns the first line begins with that same word, again and again. The king. The king. The king.

Clearly this text has something to say to us about the king. Who's the king? Obviously the king is Achashverosh, right? The first line of the text says so plainly! Of course, Achashverosh doesn't seem very bright. He's clearly ruled by his own sexuality (first the episode with Vashti, then the two times when he, er, raises his sceptre to Esther his new queen.) He can't make a single decision without an advisor there to tell him what to do. And toward the end of the story he admits that he can't annul a single one of his own decrees. Some king.

This story is filled with hints of another kind of power. The power that caused Esther to be placed in a position where she might save her people. The power to which the righteous Mordechai would bow (Haman demands the obeisance and is furious that he can't have it, but the text tells us simply that Mordechai "bows to no man.") The kind of power that would avert the severity of an evil decree and enact righteousness and compassion in its place. But that power, that form of kingship or sovereignty, is never mentioned. Purim is a festival when nothing is what it appears: Queen Esther is more than she claims to be, and the gallows on which Haman meant to hang Mordechai becomes his own undoing, and the true king in the story is never mentioned at all.

My rabbi gave over the following teaching: Pesach is the beginning of the festival cycle, the first holiday in the wheel of the year. (Yes, yes, the new year is in the fall, but the beginning of the holiday cycle is in the spring. The Jewish year has four starting points.) In the story of Pesach, the Jews are in jeopardy and we are redeemed by God, "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. The vast miracles of that story (the plagues, the splitting of the sea) could only have come from God. Yes, there's a human agent involved -- Moshe -- but the traditional haggadah barely mentions him at all. In the story of the Exodus, God is the agent of change.

Move all the way around the wheel of the year, through Shavuot and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Chanukah and Tu BiShvat, to Purim: the last festival in the year, the last stop before we begin again. In the story of Purim, the Jews are in jeopardy and we redeem ourselves: through the wisdom and faith of Mordechai, the fasting of Esther and the people, and then Esther's insight, and then the new decree she convinces the king to sign (which gives the Jews permission to defend themselves, turning their prospective day of destruction into a day of rejoicing.) Yes, God is involved -- but God is hidden, never mentioned by name. God may be the agent of change on a deep level, but the change is made manifest by our own hands.

We begin our festival year by relying on God to save us; we end our festival year by owning our own capacity to transform our world ourselves. And each year we recapitulate the journey from one to the other. In that sense, Purim is the ultimate celebration of human agency. Maybe that's why the sages of Jewish tradition suggested that in the World to Come, when creation is redeemed, all other festivals will fall away but Purim will remain: it's the quintessential messianic holiday, because it celebrates our ability to create a redeemed future with our own hands.

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