Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
Thousands of years ago a powerful king, Nebuchadnezzer, vanquished the Jews in their own capitol, Jerusalem. As part of his victory he razed the city to the ground, and exiled the Jews to live in his own Babylonian empire. The Jews moved there, and north to Persia, where they lived for many years, and over time found a place in many walks of life in that empire, though there was always a sense that they didn´t totally belong because of their different ways and religion.
Centuries later, there ruled in Persia a queen named Vashti and a king, Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus was a thoughtless man, who enjoyed drinking and courtly entertainments. He reigned over the greatest empire of its time, and wielded great power without great wisdom or forethought.
One evening, when he was drinking and entertaining courtiers in his palace as Susa, he sent for the Queen to show off her beauty. Vashti, feeling dishonored by this request to be shown before a crowd of drinking men, refused. The king, feeling dishonored and enraged by her refusal, dissolved their marriage, and sent an edict through the land reaffirming the right of men to rule their wives in all things. And then he sent another message through the empire, that every beautiful virgin was to be sent to Susa for consideration as Vashti´s successor.
Among the many beautiful virgins sent to the palace was a young women. She had two names: in Hebrew she was called Hadassah, which means Myrtle. In Persian she was named Esther, from the name of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Esther was an orphan, raised by her cousin and adoptive father Mordecai, named for the Babylonian hero god Marduk.
Mordecai brought Esther to the palace where she joined the other young women in the harem who were competing to become the new queen. He warned her not to reveal her Jewish heritage among all the pure-born Persians. Esther won first the favor of the chief eunuch, and then eventually Ahasuerus himself. He made her his new queen. While this was happening, Mordecai used to sit at the palace gate every day, to hear new of how Esther was. And at his station one day, he overheard a plot to kill the king. By this time Esther was the new Queen. He got word to her, and she told the king in the name of Mordecai. The plot was investigated, discovered, the traitors were executed and the whole affair was recorded in the palace annals.
After this a new power rose in the king´s court. His name was Haman. The king made him his foremost courtier and advisor. All people had to bow to Haman, so exalted was his position. But one day Haman was at the palace gate and the palace servants noticed that among all the people bowing low, one was not bowing - Mordecai, who kept up his daily place at the gate. They kept a look out, and realized that Mordecai never bowed when Haman was by him. They spoke to Mordecai about it, but still he wouldn´t bow. Then they told Haman, and he noticed too, next time he was at the gate, that Mordecai wouldn´t bow. This infuriated him, and in his wrath he determined not only to punish Mordecai for his disobedience but all the Jewish people then living in Persia.
Haman told the king there was a people within his empire who disobeyed him and remained apart from all others. He told the king that this people must be destroyed utterly, for the kingdom´s own good, and offered the king a great gift of money if he would let Haman wipe this people out. Ahasuerus acceded to Haman´s request, and refused the money. The casting of lots, chances, was an important part of the Persian customs and beliefs. They even used it sometimes to determine policy. Haman did this now - he cast a lot to set the date for the Jews to be wiped out, and then sent an edict throughout the kingdom that many months hence, on a certain day, all people should set upon the Jews, kill them and take their property.
All over the empire Jews were in despair. They cried in fear and dressed in sackcloth and ashes, and in Susa, Mordecai did this also. He went to the palace like this and got word to Esther, who was still successfully concealing her own identity as a Jew. He told her she must speak to the king and get him to rescind the edict. Esther demurred - she was afraid for her own life, and had not even seen the king herself in weeks - and it was death to go to the king unrequested. But Mordecai told her she too would not be safe if this terrible plan went forward, and that perhaps this need was the very reason she had ascended so miraculously to be queen of all Persia.
His words convinced Esther. She asked him to ask all the Jews to join her in fasting for three days while she prepared for this moment. After three days, she dressed in royal robes and went before the king, waiting for him to either receive her or order her killed for appearing unsummoned. Ahasuerus received her and felt so kindly toward her that he asked her what she wanted, telling her she would have it even if it was half his kingdom
Esther told him she wished only to have him and Haman to a private dinner that night. They went, and the king was so pleased with her that again he asked her what she wished and offered her anything, even to half his kingdom. Again she waited, telling him that if he was pleased, he would come again to another private banquet with Haman the following night. The king agreed, and that night was a busy one for all.
Haman left throught the palace gate again, and again there was Mordecai, not bowing and honoring Haman as he ought. Haman was enraged anew and resolved to hang Mordecai the next day, rather than wait for the decreed day still many months away. He ordered a scaffold built that very night to hang Mordecai on the next day.
Meanwhile, the king was having trouble sleeping. For some reason foiled assination plot was on his mind. He reviewed the annals and wondered what honors had been offered Mordecai for his loyalty. The servants told him that Mordecai had received nothing. By this time it was morning, and the king asked for a courtier to come advise him. By chance, Haman was just coming in to ask Ahasuerus about having Mordecai hanged. The King asked Haman what should be done for a man the king wished to honor. Haman, assuming the king meant him, Haman, as so often recently, offered a long list of things to do, including that the king´s most noble officials should lead the man on a king´s horse through the center of the city.
Ahasuerus deemed it good advice, and told Haman to follow his own advice and lead Mordecai around on a king´s horse, declaring how highly the king honored him. So Haman did it. Then Mordecai returned to the gate, and Haman went home and then to the castle for the second banquet with Esther, beginning to realize that things were not going as he planned.
Again Ahasuerus was well-pleased with Esther´s dinner, and offered her whatever she wished. This time, finally, she told him what she truly wanted - her life and the lives of her people, who were threatened with annihilation. The king was upset, and asked who dared to threaten her and her people. And Esther told him: Haman, a wicked foe and enemy. Haman was terrified. The king, enraged, left to go to the palace garden. Haman stayed and threw himself on the queen´s couch to beg for his life. The king, pacing back in saw Haman´s posture as an attack on the queen. One of the attendants pointed out that the gallows erected to kill Mordecai was waiting at Haman´s house. And the king had Haman hanged on that gallows, and his anger began to subside.
Ahasuerus gave Haman´s house to Esther, and received Mordecai when Esther told him who Mordecai truly was to her. Then the king made Mordecai his highest advisor, and Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman. Esther spoke again to the king, pleading that he revoke his order to kill all the jews a few months hence. The king told Esther and Mordecai that no royal decree could be revoked, but that they could write another, their own decree, regarding the Jews. And they did - they wrote a decree that allowed the Jews to defend themselves against assault, even to kill, and to take the property of those they defended themselves against.
And so the fateful day came, and on that day and the next, many people died. Though the Jews killed many people, they took no property to which they were entitled by law. And in recognition of these events, extraordinary and terrible, they set aside two holy days in commemoration - to take gladness from sorrow, and to remember the story and the two days when the Jews won relief from their enemies. They decreed that the days should be days of feasting and gladness, sending food to friends and gifts to the poor. And they decreed that the day should be called Purim, Lots, for the lots Haman cast when he picked the day of violence and destruction. And Queen Esther and Mordecai sent letters out to all the Jewish communities in Persia, wishing peace and security to all Jews in the 127 provinces of Ahasuerus´ kingdom and giving orders that the days of Purim should be ovserved at their appointed season. Queen Esther made sure a written record was made of these events. And Mordecai proved a loyal and talented advisor to the king, who also always remembered to look out for his people.
It´s a strange story. It is a tale of courtly intrigue, involving advisors and eunuchs and viziers. It is a catalogue of reversals, where the powerful lose everything, sometimes even their lives, in a day, a decision, a moment, and the powerless ascend to the highest positions in the mightiest empire then known. Vashti is punished for her modesty, Esther is rewarded for her effrontery in visiting the king unsummoned. It is a reflection on the meaning of identity, and the levels of identity all people possess - the identies we show or even advertise, and the selves we keep hidden - or at least try to hide; Mordecai is dressed in sackcloth and ashes, and then in royal robes prefiguring his ascension to the king´s right hand. Esther is vulnerable because of her heritage and so she must hide it, and then reveals it to save it and her people and herself. Today, in recognition of the topsy-turvy nature of the story and identities in it, one of the traditional folk ways to celebrate Purim is for men and women to cross-dress.
The Purim story is an exploration of gender and power and the interplay of those two timeless aspects in human relations. It is almost proto-feminist in its acknowledgement of women´s limited lives and vulnerability in the ancient world. It is historical, with details born out by archaeology, yet it is filled also with details that clearly surpass actual possibilities of that time and make it legend. And with all that detail, it still leaves us hanging - what happens to Vashti, to Ahasuerus, to Esther, to others named in the story - and answers other, subtler questions - the whole story is the biblical explanation for the holiday of Purim. It lifts up the experience of assimilated Jews living in the diaspora, so acculturated as to be invisible, and far from a land so saturated with godhead for them that expulsion from the land was like expulsion from God, yet it reinforces the belief that in the end, and wherever, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. It validates the human hope that life is meaningful - Mordecai, lowly but worthy, and Esther, female and brave, are rewarded, the evil (Haman) suffer, and simultaneously renews our sense that life is crazy - Vashti is punished unfairly, everyone´s life turns on a dime - or a lot.
this sermon to have a subtitle, it would be: The Story of Purim or Life is Crap Shoot, because it is that last point, the vulnerability, the risk, the chance, of living, that I want to address today. Think about it - Purim is a word derived from Persian and Hebrew that means lottery. The holiday commemorates a universal theme in human existence - one much written about in everything from the book of Job to the oeuvre of existentialism - but the theme of no other holiday: what R. Irving Greenberg calls "the absurdity and vulnerability of historical events when a turn of the wheel, a night´s insomnia, a moment of jealousy on the part of a drunken king spells the difference beween degradation and exalatation, between genocide and survival."
This is a holiday in the strangest sense - one with a sense of joy that comes from fighting despair, from choosing to uplift and work for the order we see rather than caving to the chaos and injustice that are also everywhere. Just as god is nowhere mentioned in the story, Purim´s celebration is not located primarily in the synagogue, as with the high holy days, or at home with family and a sacral meal as with Passover. Rather it is a holiday of acting out: where the Greeks had their celebrations of Dionysiac frenzy, the Jews, little known, have one too: Purim is for drinking, eating, food fights and masquerade parties and cross-dressing. In life, nothing is dependably as it seems and Purim is, at its deepest levels, brave enough to acknowledge that.
One of Judaism´s great strengths as a religion is its capacity to encounter life´s darkness, acknowledge it, even honor it, and still struggle on - not denying the pain or chaos of living, but despite that pain and chaos. Modern psychology tells us that in order to move beyond a painful or traumatic experience, we have to acknowledge it and work it through. Stiff upper-lipping it just keeps it there, stewing under the lid of our stoicism, ready to boil over whenever we lose our cool. It is only when we honor our grief, terror, sorrow, pain - that we can ever, slowly, begin to win our way past them. And Judaism seems to have worked that all out a while ago, and calls us, with every tradition from sitting shiva - doing nothing for a week but holding an open house for mourners to visit - to Purim - doing nothing for two days but dance and eat and drink and push every boundary in the face of despair, to live out our feelings so that we may both work beyond them and honor the reality of human experience, and thus continue to add our lives to the chain of positive human achievement that links us like hands behind and before in history.
Purim is a Jewish holiday. Some of us here this morning were raised to sing songs and eat hamentaschen "Haman´s hat" pastries at this time of year, some of us were not. Regardless of the degree to which we are familiar with Purim´s story and traditions, because we are human, we all know its themes. Purim is a holiday about fallibility and courage. It offers us all an opportunity to remember that we are not the first to suffer, nor even suffering the worst this day, to honor our suffering and others´, and still to renew our commitment to order, to creation, to love, to joy, to hope, no matter what.