Note: It is customary at the Jewish holiday of Purim to give money to charity, and also to give out Mishloach Manot, or gifts of food to friends and family. This week, besides being just a bit more than a month before my book deadline, is the grand baking festival of hamantaschen. Hamantaschen are filled cookies, shaped like the legendary three cornered hat of the bad dude, Haman. We’re making about 200 of these, plus unbelievable amounts of spiced almonds and gingerbread, so posting may be light. Also, it is traditional at Purim to get drunk – Purim is a holiday of wild exuberance, celebrating life, and the tradition says you are supposed to get so smashed that you can’t tell the difference between Haman (who has all the markers of evil, twirls a mustache and has a three-cornered hat) and Mordechai (good dude, notably different hat, expression of kindness and generosity and all that goody-goody stuff) – this requires a lot of alcohol (ok, in a woman who nursed for a combined 8 years and lost her tolerance, this might take as much as three glasses of wine). So your blogiste may be a little less attentive to detail than usual this week , and maybe a little hung over this weekend. All of which is just a long way of saying “I’m busy, here’s a re-run.”
We are getting ready for Purim at our house. Someone or other once pointed out that pretty much all Jewish festivals can be summed as “They tried to destroy the Jewish people, they were foiled, let’s eat.” And so it is – Purim celebrates the story of Esther, and the preservation of the Jewish people. It is a lot of fun – people wear costumes, drink, dance, make noise and are silly. And we are commanded to (twice!) rehear the story that explains all this revelry.
The “hearing” is not very sedate – don’t think “Bible reading” think “Rocky Horror show” – it is acted out in comic plays, the text is read aloud but half the time you can’t hear it because when Haman’s name is mentioned everyone yells and rattles noisemakers to block out his memory. Still, if you’ll forgive me for making something serious out of something silly, there’s a story in there worth hearing.
Esther didn’t particularly want to be a heroine. She was pleased to get to be queen (the queen of a rather sleazy king, who had dumped his previous wife, Vashti because she refused to come display himself for his male friends), and there is no real indication in the story that she is at all displeased to have assimilated into non-Jewish culture. She conceals that she is a Jew because her uncle fears that king will not take her as a wife, not out of any particularly noble motive, and she doesn’t seem much troubled by it.
Megilla Esther is first and foremost the story of acceptance by and of the dominant culture, of not making too many waves, of assimilation. But what separates Esther is her refusal (and Mordechai’s) to allow her commitment to and investment in the dominant culture to shape her moral thinking.
When Haman calls for the people of Ahasauerus’s realm to murder all the Jews within it and plunder their goods, Mordechai calls upon Esther to plead with the king to preserve the Jews. Esther is understandably frightened both to reveal herself as a Jew and also to go before the king without his summoning her, since the penalty for that is death. She tells Mordechai if he tries to speak to the king, she will die. And Mordechai’s answer is decidedly un-avuncular, essentially “So what?”:
“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will excape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to your position for just such a crisis.”
Mordechai has raised Esther as a daughter, but he does not fail to speak harshly to her of her duty. And so she risks death twice, first by going to the king, and then by asking that he spare his queen and her people. And, of course (or we would not be celebrating) Ahasaueros does – the bad guy gets the gallows, the good guy wins, like all such stories. Esther ends up right at the end, of course, but she does so by recognizing that if she came to power in the dominant culture, it does not absolve her of moral responsibility, but heightens her obligation.
Peter Parker said it too, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I think most of us have no idea how powerful we are, and thus, how responsible we are. Virtually all Americans command power and wealth unimaginable to most of the people in the world. Virtually all Americans are wealthier than 90% of the world’s population. Most of us have more education – even if we graduated only from high school – than a majority of the world’s population. It doesn’t feel that way, when you are in debt and struggling economically, but most Americans are richer and more priveleged than Kings in most of history.
Because we do not see ourselves as powerful and rich – we view ourselves mostly in comparison to our neighbors who are similarly powerful and rich, and we are all caught up (me too) in our struggles. We do not tend to think that *we* are the people who have great responsibility in the world, that we are responsible to act. Other people are powerful, not us – and there’s some truth in that – but only some. Other people can change things, not us – and again, there’s some truth here, but only some. We have a thousand good reasons not to act – we are merely getting along, we do not have time, we do not have energy, we do not have money enough to spare.
But if we do not, who on earth has the time and the money, the energy and the power to change the world, to make things better, to prepare us for what’s coming? Who will you ask to do it for you? Someone poorer and weaker and less priveleged? Someone who has had less good fortune?
In many cases they *are* doing that work – all over the world, the poor have spoken up about climate change and resource use, land reform and sustainability. I have read analyses of global warming and the WTO written by 12 year olds from Nicaraugua and India that put the writing of professional adults to shame. The world is full of people who work harder than you and I, who have harder lives, fewer and whose very lives are set at stake by the changes in our world, and who still have time to stand up and speak out.
I have written this elsewhere, but I repeat it, and will keep repeating it as long as necessary: almost all that is good in human history over the last three centuries is that oppressed and frightened, impoverished and angry people have stood up to those that did them harm, that mortgaged their future and endangered their lives and said “No More.” This was never simple, it was never easy, but surprisingly often, they succeeded in winning, despite lack of things you and I have plentifully – power, money, education, comfort. Our own national history includes, along with its dark side, a remarkable and courageous tradition of not counting the cost to do what is right. And virtually every single person who has ever stood up in resistance has been less well educated, less wealthy, less priveleged, less safe, less comfortable than you and I are today. How is it that we keep finding reasons to do less than they?
Most of us are not living up to our moral responsibilities, or using our privelege and wealth to create justice. We, like Esther, are afraid, although our stakes aren’t as high as hers. We are afraid we will lose our comfort, some of our wealth and our privelege. We are afraid to take full responsibility for the changes that have to come – we would rather put them off on future generations. The thought that we might have to give upthings we are accustomed to and change to something entirely new is frightening. So mostly, we are a silent.
But Mordechai’s words “Perhaps you have attained your position for just such a crisis,” should speak to us all. Whether you believe in G-d or good fortune, in the randomness of all things or in some sort of intentionality, perhaps if we are very lucky, it is because we are supposed to, or perhaps simply morally obligated to, use what power we have transformatively. Perhaps we are meant to lead, no matter how little we like the work, how frightened we are of the consequences, or how comfortable we are ensconced in the dominant culture.
We are like Esther. We are afraid of what it would mean to stand forth from the culture and demand that it change. We are comfortable in our palaces, and happy with our embroidered robes. And we, like Esther, are tempted only to act if we can forsee happy consequences for ourselves. But as Mordechai rightly points out, sometimes what happens to us isn’t really the point – sometimes what matters is that we, in our power, have done the right thing, without counting the cost to ourselves. It takes courage. And that is not in over-great supply. But I suspect there is more of it out there than we like to admit, even to ourselves.
Chag Sameach! A happy Purim to all!