The end of Esther
March 10, 2009
A lot of bloggers are posting "Purim Torah" today -- think "April fool's posts," more or less. I don't have any Purim Torah to give over, so instead I'm posting a serious piece that I meant to post a few days ago but life got in the way.
There's a lot to love about the megillah of Esther. I've waxed rhapsodic about it before in these pages (I direct your attention especially to last year's Redemption and the true king and to The whole megillah, my 2006 review of JT Waldman's gorgeous graphic novel rendition of the story.) But near the very end of the scroll, there's some material I don't love quite as much.
Chapter nine of the megillah describes the revenge the Jews take on those who had desired to slaughter them, and reading it makes me uncomfortable.
Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")
But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?
Much is made of how this scroll, alone among the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, makes no mention whatsoever of God; though many readers (especially Hasidic commentators) find God's presence hidden subtly all over the text, maybe we should be grateful that God's name never appears here, so we need not attribute this instance of bloody vengeance to divine will or a divine hand.
Some of us don't want to read chapter nine aloud. Others have taken to reading it in Eikha trope -- the sorrowing minor melodic mode we use for chanting Lamentations on Tisha b'Av, instead of the happier tune we use for chanting Esther on Purim. (I have the feeling the two melodic systems are related, though don't know either well enough to say for sure.) Some of my friends and colleagues have asked: should we still be reading this at all? Doesn't it offend our deep post-triumphalistic and peace-seeking desires?
But when we studied this text at the end of the Biblical History class I took this past fall, my teacher Reb Leila Gal Berner argued that we can't excise these verses from our text -- nor should we. We have to grapple with the end of the book, and even if we breathe a sigh of relief when we say "this didn't really happen," we have to ask ourselves why this violent end to the story is in our text, and how we want to address the reality that it is there.
The ending of the story carries forward the theme of inversions and reversals that recurs throughout the story: Achashverosh banished Vashti because she was uppity and he wanted to be in charge -- but he wound up wrapped around Esther's finger, not in charge at all. Haman wanted to hang Mordechai from the gallows that Haman built -- but instead Haman himself wound up swinging. The Jews were in grave danger once the king signed a decree giving the citizens of the land the right to kill and plunder -- but instead the tables were turned one last time, and the Jews took vengeance on those who would have slaughtered us.
This reads to me like the revenge fantasy of an oppressed people, fueled by deep collective memory of persecution and slaughter. You wanted to kill us, but aha: when we tell the story, we get to be the ones who are really in control! It's a safe way of blowing off steam: instead of actually acting out, we tell a story wherein we get to be the conquerors instead of the conquered for a change.
The shadow side of this practice, of course, arises when we lose sight of the reality that this was supposed to be harmless storytelling. (I'm thinking here of the senseless and tragic deaths of Muslims at prayer during the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre on Purim fifteen years ago. My teacher Reb Arthur Waskow has written powerfully about that: From A Dark and Bloody Purim, New Torah.)
For me, the value in preserving a text like the end of the Megillah of Esther -- or the passage shfoch chamatecha ("Pour out Your wrath") which appears in the traditional haggadah alongside the filling of Elijah's cup, and which asks God to pour out divine wrath on those who do not know God -- is that these texts speak the painful, ugly reality that oppression breeds anger and fury to which we must attend. (For a resource on reclaiming shfoch chamatecha, I recommend Laura Levitt's Reflections at ritualwell. I'll have more to blog about that as Pesach approaches.)
These texts can provoke the crucial conversations that we must have about the lingering aftereffects of oppression. The aftereffects of pogroms, of the Shoah, of the feelings of fear and defensiveness which are present in the lives of so many Jews. It is out of systemic oppression, and the memory of such oppression, that the desire for vengeance arises. We see it buried in our texts, bursting forth in places like the end of the megillah with a vehemence which can be unsettling and uncomfortable. We see it in our communities, in the listserv discussions which arise every time Israel engages in combat with one of its neighbors.
For those of us who identify deeply as seekers of peace, this is troubling and painful. But we can't pretend that it isn't there. This year, when we read the violent end of the Megillah of Esther, can we use that experience to propel us into talking about the natural human desire for power and for vengeance against those who (we believe) would do us ill?