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Somebody called me today, right in the middle of my workday, asking me to tell her over the story of Purim. The holiday comes up this weekend and her hairdresser, a religious Catholic, asked her what Purim is all about.
They teach you stories about the holidays in Hebrew school, but you grow up, and if you don't keep up with these things, you forget. And they sanitized the stories, is my guess, for kids, as I will right now. Quickly, for I still have to make my costume.
The story begins in 423 BCE in Persia, when Vashti, wife to King Achasuerus, refuses to entertain the king's guests at a drinking party. Entertain, as in, dance with no clothes on. Queen Vashti isn't in the mood for this or maybe she's read Simone de Beauvoir, and respectfully declines. The king takes away her throne as punishment, orders a beauty pageant, the local virgins should line up. One will replace Queen Vashti.
An orphan, Esther, wins the contest. She is the niece of Mordechai, her guardian and husband-to-be, the most beautiful in the land. Mordechai is a religious guy so he assumes there has to be a good reason for this turn of events. A Jewish queen is not de rigueur, but off to the palace she goes. (If you read the Phillipa Gregory novels, a guilty pleasure for some of us -hey, Jess!- you see that this sort of thing can just happen. Anyone can become queen if she is the most beautiful in the land.)
The king has many people in his court, many advisers. One particularly ambitious vizier, Haman, takes a dislike to Mordechai, better known as Mordechai the Jew, because Mordechai spends hours at the palace gates communicating with his niece via messengers. (No Facebook!) Anyway, Haman, the son of Hamdata the Agagi, hates Mordechai the Jew because, chutzpha! Mordechai refuses to bow down to him when he passes through the gates to the palace. You're supposed to bow to a vizier.
But it's not a Jewish thing, bowing to others.*
If you bow down to anyone, it would be to the Old Mighty.**
Haman, having sustained a narcissistic injury, such an insult! convinces the king that genocide, wiping the country clean of Jews, is a very good idea. The king, not even realizing that his wife Esther is Jewish, says, "Sure." The king drinks a lot, it seems, and trusts people who whisper in his ear.
When the Jews hear the royal decree-- they're going to be wiped out-- they do what Jews do. They pray, they fast, and they strategize, get ready for war. Mordechai has a talk with Esther, tells her to be a woman, convince the king to reverse the decree. "You can do it!" Positive thinking.
She's reluctant. Sounds dangerous. Must be a better way.
Mordechai shrugs. "If you don't do it, the redemption will come from someplace else. Might as well be you."
Revah hatzalah, mai makom achair, in Hebrew, direct from the scroll, I think. It's what I say a lot to my kids, to my family, my friends. You can't quote from ancient scrolls in therapy or people will think you're very odd.
But the redemption, the solution, will come from somewhere else. Precisely when we feel hopeless, when there seems to be no solution in sight, this is when we have to stop thinking that just because we don't see a solution, that there is none. It's probably something not yet tried, or hasn't yet been considered. It's out there somewhere. We probably have to wait, or maybe just pick one and run with it, try it, then try another. Or maybe it will come from some other place. Or maybe we won't find the solution in this lifetime. Find meaning somehow, in that.
End of story. It's a great holiday. We dress up in costumes, give money to the poor, replace trick or treating with gifts of food to our friends. The whole neighborhood wakes up, rejoices, because hey, a woman saved the day! And some people take their drinking way too seriously on this holiday, don't even catch that part about the king. But it is a tradition to rejoice until you can't see, which is easy for Jews who can't see anyway, and if they drink, pass out.
I knew there was something I forgot to tell her.
* People are people, we feel, but there is a special prayer we say when we meet a king or a president.
**The Old Mighty is how my sainted grandfather referred to his Higher Power. His English wasn't the best.
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